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European Parliament adopts report on access to EU documents - but what happened to citizens' rights of access? updated twice 17.11.00
01 November 2000
At its plenary session on 16 November the European Parliament (EP) meeting in Strasbourg adopted a report put forward by Michael Cashman (PSE) and Hanji Maij-Weggen (PPE) which forms the parliament's first reading response to the Commission's proposal for a new code on access to EU documents. The EP had before it 16 amendments tabled by the Green/ALE group and the ELDR (Liberal) group - five of the amendments to the main report were put forward jointly by the Greens and ELDR - all bar one were rejected by the parliament.
The report went through with the backing of the PSE, Socialist group (effectively social democrats) and the PPE (conservative right group) the two biggest parties in the parliament. On the final vote 409 voted in favour 3 against with the Green MEPs abstaining. The vote on the legislative resolution has been postponed until January.
The Council of the European Union (the 15 EU governments) are expected to adopt their "common position" in December. The Commission put forward a draft new code in January. Unless the Council agrees with the EP's report the Council's "common position" will be the basis of further discussion - the new code has to be agreed by May 2001.
What the UK papers said, 17.11.00
The Guardian newspaper duly reported that a:
"landmark vote by members of the European Parliament yesterday threw down a challenge to secretive governments and eurocrats. By an overwhelming majority the MEPs backed new freedom of information proposals that would grant the right of access to most official documents from any institution in Brussels.. "This vote sends the signal that we are going to deliver something that gives far greater access", Mr Cashman said."
While The Independent said the European Parliament:
"demanded new and sweeping rights of access to European Union documents... Yesterday's document drawn up by Labour MEP Michael Cashman specifically attacked the regime, created hurriedly by the EU's Council of Ministers for exchanging sensitive military information with NATO [the "Solana Decision"].... Mr Cashman declared that MEPs had "sounded the death knell for this, and for other attempts to stitch up secrecy deals behind closed doors".
Comment: The gap between "spin" and substance is as usual enormous. The PSE/PPE alliance in the parliament did indeed mean an "overwhelming number of MEPs" voted for the report but does this make it a report giving the citizens "far greater access"? All bar one of the amendments which have made the report half-decent were voted down routinely by the same alliance.
One of the reasons why this report can be presented as a great advance is because its author thinks the Commission's draft code represents current practice under the 1993 Decision (see, Explanatory report), which is completely untrue. Current practice is much, much better that it would be under the Commission's proposal.
As to sounding the "death knell" for the "Solana Decision" this comes from the rapporteur who embraced the "Solana Decision" back in August and amended the report to accommodate it. After the furore across the EU over the way the decision had been taken - without consulting any parliaments or civil society - and its effect - to permanently exclude from access whole categories of documents - the report was hastily revised in September. In the adopted report is the catch-all category of documents covering "miltary matters" (the same phrase as in the Council's draft common position) which can be refused to applicants.
The Green/EFA group of MEPs, press release on the vote:
For citizens and civil society the best way to evaluate the EP's report is to compare it with the present practice which has been in place since 1993. Among the problems with the present code of access to EU documents are:
i) only the Council has a public register of documents available on the internet, t