Statewatch wins new complaint against the Council
01 July 2001
After a four year fight Statewatch has finally obtained the agendas ten EU-US high-level planning meetings between September 1996 and February 1998. The agendas concern meetings of the "Senior Level Group" and the "EU-US Task Force" set up under the New Transatlantic Agenda agreed in 1995.
When Statewatch applied for the agendas in 1997 the Council refused to give access to the documents because, they argued, there were three separate "authors" - the "Presidency" of the Council of the European Union, the European Commission and the "US authorities". After an appeal against the initial decision Statewatch took a complaints to the European Ombudsman who ruled on 30 June 1998 that the Council's decision was erroneous and there were no grounds in the code of access to support their argument - the Ombudsman ruled that the Council should give access unless one of the exception in Article 4.1 could be applied.
On 9 July 1998 Statewatch again requested the agendas (9 July 1998). Despite the Ombudsman's ruling the Council now claimed quite different grounds for refusing access, namely that the documents were not "held" by the Council but by the General Secretariat of the Council and that they were not registered or systematically filed - they therefore, in the Council's view, fell outside the code of access.
Statewatch then took the issue back to the European Ombudsman again. On 1 March 2001 the Ombudsman made a Recommendation (the highest power the Ombudsman office has) that the Council:
1. respect the Ombudsman's decision of 30 June 1998
2. systematically register and file the documents concerned, and
3. give access to the documents in question unless the exceptions in Article 4.1. applied
On 25 May 2001, after nearly four years, the Council backed down and supplied the agendas of the meetings.
The Ombudsman's actions are important for another reason. In the initial ruling the Ombudsman established that the "Presidency" of the Council of the European Union is not a separate "institution" (author) from the Council. In this new decision the Ombudsman has established that the "General Secretariat" of the Council is similarly not a separate "institution" from the Council. In his ruling the Ombudsman, Mr Jacob Soderman, said:
"The Ombudsman rejected the Council's argument that its General Secretariat is a separate institution. No provision in the Treaty or in Community law would suggest such a thing. Therefore, documents held by the General Secretariat of the Council are documents "held by the Council" and its public access rules apply. The Ombudsman also insisted that the aim of the Code of Conduct on Public Access to documents is to allow for the largest possible access for citizens to information. This objective could not be met if the Council refused access to documents saying that they were held by its General Secretariat."
Text of the Ombudsman's press release: Ombudsman
Full-text of the Ombudsman decision: Ombudsman
This is the seventh successful complaint taken by Statewatch against the Council of the European Union to the European Ombudsman, the decision of the Ombudsman on an eighth complaint is expected soon. For all background information on Statewatch's complaints and the struggle for openness in the EU see the new Statewatch: Freedom of Information in the EU
What the EU-US agendas reveal
The two groups - the Senior Level Group and the EU-US Task Force - were set up as result of the signing of the New Transatlantic Agenda in Madrid on 3 December 1995. At the same time a "Joint EU-US Action Plan" was agreed on justice and home affairs issues.
What the agendas show is the level of EU-US economic, political and mi