28 March 2012
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The European Parliament is taking the Council of the European Union to the Court of Justice over its failure to consult the parliament over the adoption of a new classification code for access to documents in March 2001. The parliament argues that this was quite inappropriate as the institutions (the parliament, Council and the European Commission) were in the process of adopting a new Regulation on public access to documents: European Parliament case against the Council
The Secretary-General of the Council, Mr Solana, drew up the new classification code which was simply nodded through by the General Affairs Council of the Council of the European Union on 19 March (it was an "A" point, adopted without debate) - the European Parliament was not consulted. This followed the now infamous "Solana Decision" in July last year: The Solana Decision, July 2000
The Decision completely changed the Council's classification codes to meet NATO demands. Although it is being presented as only covering "Top Secret", "Secret" and "Confidential" documents it also covers the lowest level of classified documents, "Restricted", and completely redefines it. It also extends classifications to all areas of EU activity.
Analysis of the Council Decision concerning the adoption of Council Security Regulations
The Decision and Annexes cover security arrangements to be put in place by the Council to bring its security procedures "in line with standards in NATO" (UK Explanatory memorandum, 21.12.00).
It is intended that this Decision should replace three previous Decisions including the recently adopted Decision of the Secretary General/High Representative of 27 July 2000 (2000/C239/01) on measures for the protection of classified information applicable to the General Secretariat of the Council (document no: 10703/00, 8.8.00).
The bulk of the Annexes are unexceptional in that they contain standard security procedures in EU member states for domestic security and NATO purposes.
The proposed Decision is not limited to foreign policy and security issues (ESDP), it would apply to classification and security procedures in all areas of Council activity.
As noted in the Explanatory Memorandum of 18 January 2001 from the UK Foreign Office:
"the Regulation will also mean that sensitive documents in other fields - justice and home affairs, for example, are kept sufficiently secure."
This is a clear extension of classification rules and security procedures from the "Solana Decision" adopted in August 2000 which only covered ESDP issues.
The Decision would cover not only justice and home affairs aspects of "non-military crisis management" but justice and home affairs issues in their own right. It also implies that other policy areas like aid and trade could be affected too.
It is thus important to bear in mind that although the proposed Decision is motivated by the need to satisfy "NATO standards" the changes will affect all areas of EU policy not just ESDP.
Another caveat has to be made about the scope of the proposed Decision. No distinction is made between policy-making and operations. Policy-making should normally be in the public domain and subject to democratic discussion.
Certainly operational "details" would usually require the highest level of protection in the ESDP field. On the other hand this may not always be the case in the field of justice and home affairs. For example, Europol is empowered to initiate and help coordinate "controlled deliveries" of both drugs and of people (migrants) and has undertaken a number of such operations. Were Europol to decide to initiate, in cooperation with a number of EU member states, the "controlled delivery" of "illegal" immigrants and in the process a number of these people died or were seriously injured might it not be in the public interest that such an operation be open to scrutiny (whether in court or in national parliaments) with a view to revising the existing policy?
"Contamination" of the code on access to EU documents
The Decision of 27 July 2000 replaced Decision 24/95. The substantive change in the former was the inclusion of the classification "TRES SECRET/TOP SECRET" for the first time and the insertion of a reference in the preamble to "military and non-military crisis management."
One provision in the 27 July 2000 Decision (and Decision 24/95) although unchanged took on a different meaning after the "Solana Decision" and is of even greater importance under this proposal.
Article 3.1 says:
"Where a number of items of information constitute a whole, that whole shall be classified at least as highly as its most highly classified constituent item."
If this new regime is to be introduced covering not Top Secret, Secret and Confidential documents but also those given the classification "Restreint" it could - to use EU jargon - "contaminate" whole areas of policy discussion. This is especially so where a set of documents, which may be nearly all "Limite" (unclassified), contain a reference to a single "Restreint" document.
In the same way "contamination" can occur because a "military" or more likely a "non-military crisis management" document is mentioned in other documents which would otherwise be accessible.
Another form of "contamination" is the use of concepts, more appropriate to the military and intelligence fields, in reference to EU policies as a whole. For example, the use of the term "subversive" (pages 10, 14, 23 and 48).
The use of such concepts when employed in fields such as justice and home affairs (which includes public order), in conjunction with the "Restricted" classification where documents might "prejudice the investigation or facilitate the commission of crime", could lead to the covering up of situations that should be subject to public scrutiny and policy review.
Of particular concern are documents classified as "Restricted". The Decision of 27 July 2000 defines "Restricted", the lowest level of classification, as:
"RESTREINT: information the unauthorised disclosure of which would be inappropriate or premature"
In the Annex, page 19, to the proposed Decision this is redefined as:
"EU RESTRICTED: This classification shall be applied to information and material the unauthorised disclosure of which could be disadvantageous to the interests of the European Union or one or more of its Member States."
This definition which substitutes "disadvantageous to the interests of" for "inappropriate or premature" is of stronger force than the present definition.
It should also be noted that, unlike the Decision of 27 July 2000, the proposed Decision contains no definition of LIMITE or SN documents.
However, it is the definitions offered in Appendix 3 - "Practical Classification Guide" which are, we believe, a cause for serious concern.
Here "Restricted" is defined as applying to:
"The compromise of assets marked EU RESTRICTED would be likely to:
- adversely affect diplomatic relations;
- cause substantial distress to individuals;
- make it more difficult to maintain operational effectiveness or security of Member States or other contributors forces;
- cause financial loss or facilitate improper gain or advantage for individuals or companies;
- breach proper undertakings to maintain the confidence of information provided by third parties;
- breach statutory restrictions on disclosure of information;
- prejudice the investigation or facilitate the commission of crime;
- disadvantage EU or Member States in commercial or policy negotiations with others;
- impede the effective development or operation of EU policies;
- undermine the proper management of the EU and its operations." (page 78)
This lengthy definition is clearly much, much wider that of "inappropriate or premature" release of documents in the 27 July 2000 Decision.
Furthermore, categories like "prejudice the investigation or facilitate the commission of crime" or "impede the effective development or operation of EU policies" or "undermine the proper management of the EU and its operations" are so wide as to be open to abuse.
Destruction of documents
Paragraphs 31-34, pages 39-40 deals with the "Routine Destruction of EU classified documents" and covers all four classification categories. It is highly questionable whether all such documents should be "routinely" destroyed and removed from the historical record (whether to be released after 100, 50, 30 years is another issue).
To take an example, under "non-military crisis management". It is not inconceivable that a "situation" could arise in an area of the world, or a specific country, where the interests of the EU are seen to be threatened (the "threat" could be to utilities like the supply of oil or gas or the economic interests of EU companies). In such a situation a whole series of policy documents would be prepared covering aid, trade, diplomatic relations, policing missions, judicial missions, border control missions as well as a military presence. It must surely be in the public interest that such documents are potentially available for scrutiny and review.
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