EU: Row in Council over revealing position of governments

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The application of the new Regulation on public access to EU documents, which came into force on 3 December 2001, has led to a number of disagreements between EU member states. The latest concerns giving access to the positions of EU member states (governments) in the discussions on new measures and practices.

First, the General Secretariat of the Council which answers all initial applications for documents decided that all Member States' positions and the name of the country should be withheld. Then, after a number of appeals the governments concerned said they did not mind their positions being made public (this happened on a Statewatch appeal). Then in February (22.2.02) the Council made a different decision on an appeal lodged by Steve Peers, Reader in law, Essex University. Now they decided to give access to the member states' opinions but not to the names of the member states (Denmark, Sweden and Finland voted against this decision).

Appeals against the initial refusal of documents (or parts of documents, so-called "partial access") are considered by the Council's Working Party on Information comprised of the press officers from members states Brussels' offices.

On 1 March a report from the General Secretariat to COREPER (the high-level committee of permanent representatives of the 15 EU governments based in Brussels) asked that a decision be made on future practice. The report says that three options were available on public access to delegations' positions (member states views):

1. The whole document should be released;
2. Release the content of the document but refuse access to all delegations' positions "en bloc";
3. "Release of the document including the text of the footnotes and other references to the delegations' positions whilst suppressing the name of the respective delegation but excluding parts covered by the exceptions in Article 4 of Regulation (EC) 1049/2001"

The report concludes that:

Option 1 would "undermine the institution's decision-making process"

Option 2 would mean refusing "en bloc" parts of documents - "this practice has already been condemned by the Court of Justice"

Option 3 "appears to be the only legally defendable option."

Civil society campaigners for openness would agree with the latter position - if the whole document cannot be released but the positions taken (minus the names of the countries) can be accessed at least it is possible to see the issues on the table.

However, it appears that at the COREPER meeting on 6 March there was strong opposition to this approach from some member states.

Steve Peers, commented:

"If the Council does not at least agree to release the comments of delegations, no effective parliamentary or public scrutiny of its activities is possible."

Full-text of document: 6203/02 (pdf) Story filed 15.3.02

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