Statewatch press release, 12.3.00:
The President of the European Commission, Mr Prodi, has launched an astonishing attack on the European Ombudsman, Mr Söderman, for daring to question the Commission's proposed regulation on public access to documents. Mr Prodi has written to the President of the European Parliament expressing the:
"concern of the entire body of commissioners in regard to what it views as a questionable use of his functions."
Mr Söderman wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal Europe (24 Feburary) criticising the Commission's regulation. He said:
"Should the Parliament and Council adopt the Commission's proposal, there probably won't be a document in the EU's possession that couldn't be legally withheld from public scrutiny" (see abridged text)
He added that the "list of exemptions from access [is] without precedent in the modern world."
Mr Prodi responded by defending the regulation in an article that was published on 9 March in the Wall Street Journal Europe. But in the letter to the European Parliament he says that Mr Söderman's article is in his view "polemic and extreme", "ill-informed" and "emotional and seriously erroneous" and for Mr Söderman to express his views publicly is "detrimental to the normal functioning of the institutions". Mr Söderman criticised one of the Commission's policies, Mr Prodi's response has been to personally attack Mr Söderman.
In fact it is Mr Prodi who is either ill-informed or simply does not understand the regulation the Commission has adopted (see Statewatch detailed critique). Its proposal will:
1) drastically reduce the number of documents which can even be applied for (at present any document can be obtained subject to certain exceptions);
2) introduce new and far-reaching exceptions to limit access to those documents which can be applied for;
3) will force EU member states to adhere to the decisions made by Brussels-based officials on which documents they can release.
In his Wall Street Journal Europe article Mr Prodi challenges Mr Söderman's view that the regulation was "secretly drafted". Mr Prodi cites as evidence a conference held in the European Parliament last April where: "a discussion paper on access to documents was widely distributed and criticised. The Commission took these comments into account..."
In fact this was a conference not organised by the Commission (as part of a consultation process) but rather by: the European Federation of Journalists, the Socialist Group of MEPs (PSE), the Green Group of MEPs, the European Liberal Democratic and Reformist Group of MEPs (ELDR) and Statewatch. The draft Commission discussion paper, which had been leaked to Statewatch prior to the meeting, was so heavily criticised that it was never adopted and published by the Commission. There was no consultation with civil society, it was drawn up in secret.
Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:
"To suggest that civil society was consulted prior to the adoption of the regulation by the Commission in January is simply untrue. It was drawn up in secret and is a classic example of officials having the so-called "space to think" shielded from undue pressure. Their proposals only got out because they were leaked to Statewatch and we put them up on the internet."
"It is irresponsible for appointed officials (however high their rank) to try to undermine or question the independent functioning of another EU institution whose head, Mr Söderman, derives his authority from being directly-elected by the European Parliament."
"Mr Prodi refers to the need for "loyal cooperation between the institutions" when criticising Mr Söderman. The European Parliament has no duty of "loyalty" to the Commission (or to the Council) only to the people who elected it. Mr Prodi wants to discuss any criticisms in secret, behind closed doors. Mr Söderman, by voicing in public his views on the effect of the regulation, has done a great service to the maintenance of fundamental democratic standards in the EU."
- ends -
Note: Under Article 255 of the Amsterdam Treaty the regulation adopted by the Commission has to be agreed under the co-decision procedure by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. The regulation has to be in place by May 2001.
Tony Bunyan is a journalist. He is editor of Statewatch bulletin which monitors civil liberties in the EU. On behalf of Statewatch he took seven complaints to the European Ombudsman against the Council over access to documents and "won" six-and-a-half of them. He is author of "Secrecy and openness in the European Union", Kogan Page, November 1999.
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