By Laurens Ankersmit
In a Grand Chamber ruling of 4 September 2018, the European Court of Justice annulled two decisions of the Commission to refuse access to documents on impact assessment reports in environmental matters. The decision is an important precedent to ensure greater transparency of the EU institutions at the early stages of legislative action – arguably the key stage of influence – and therefore a resounding win for those arguing for greater participation and influence of citizens in the EU legislative process. The judgment’s explicit recognition of this key constitutional EU value of greater participation of its citizens in the EU decision-making process in an access to documents case is therefore without doubt the most notable aspect of the ruling. It marks a major step forward for the utility for citizens of Regulation 1049/2001, especially considering the extensive restrictive case-law (in terms of transparency) in relation to other powers of the Commission under the Treaties. For transparency lawyers specifically, the finding of the ECJ that there is no general presumption of confidentiality to documents drafted in the context of a legislative initiative is significant, as is the role of the Aarhus Regulation in access to documents cases. Continue reading
By Päivi Leino and Daniel Wyatt
The EU Treaty commits the Union to respect international human rights in both its internal and external action, and to always act as openly as possible. Despite this, the transparency of the EU institutions remains a hot-button issue, including in relation to the consummation of international agreements (or other international arrangements) that have potential human rights implications. This very issue was on display in the recent judgment of the General Court in Case T-851/16 Access Info Europe v Commission. Here, Access Info Europe, an NGO concerned about the 2016 compatibility of the EU-Turkey refugee deal with international human rights law, sought, through an access to documents request made to the Commission, to uncover the institution’s own legal analysis regarding the agreement’s legality.
The matter was no less urgent because of the General Court’s recent order in Cases T-192/16, T-193/16 and T-257/16 NF, NG and NM v European Council, which established that the deal does not count as measure adopted by one of the institutions of the EU for the purposes of judicial review under the Treaties. This leaves the matter in a legal limbo especially considering that the EU is not party to the European Convention of Human Rights and thus not subject to its external human rights scrutiny, a path effectively closed by the CJEU itself. To our knowledge, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, the EU body that was established to provide expertise on fundamental rights, had not been consulted on the matter. It would be a clear concern to the public to uncover, if this indeed was the case, that an international arrangement that dealt with areas of fundamental importance, for example considerations of whether Turkey was a ‘safe third country’ for the purposes of the refugee regime, was concluded on the basis of hasty and incomplete legal advice—or, in the worst case, that advice that deemed the agreement illegal was ignored. It is hard to envisage a matter in which public access rules would be serving their constitutional function better.
By Maarten Hillebrandt
Public Access to Documents in the EU, by Leonor Rossi and Patricia Vinagre e Silva, (Oxford/Portland, Hart Publishing, 2017, ISBN 9781509905331); xxxviii + 340pp.; £49.00 hb.
Access to EU Documents: A Policy in Three Acts
On 7 February, the EU celebrated a remarkable anniversary. Exactly twenty-five years ago on that day, the Heads of State and Government (HSG) of the European Community’s then twelve Member States took the bold leap forward by signing the Maastricht Treaty. Another leap forward lay tucked away in one of the Treaty’s accompanying texts, even when the Member States’ representatives did not realise it at the time of signing. Declaration 17, attached to the Maastricht Treaty, recognised the positive relation between transparency and democracy, and professed an intention to take steps to advance such transparency. Thus began the First Act of a transformative development called Access to Documents.
In the years that followed, much ground was covered. Under the pressure of public opinion, the declaration turned out to have more bite than the HSG had envisaged. In an attempt to defuse the crisis that emerged after the Danish rejection and French near-rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, Declaration 17 went from a European Council statement to a Commission report, and from a Commission report into a code of conduct, which eventually led to internal decisions on access to documents adopted successively by the Council (1993), the Commission (1993) and the European Parliament (1997). Less than two years after a hortatory political declaration in a footnote of a treaty, EU access to documents thus entered into its Second Act. Continue reading
If one thing resorts clearly from the ACTA saga, it is that the atmosphere of secrecy in which ACTA was negotiated (required allegedly to enable mutual trust between the parties in the negotiations) completely backfired and deteriorated trust in the European Commission by European citizens and the European Parliament, resulting in ACTA’s ultimate demise. In a case decided yesterday by the General Court this tension between secrecy needed for the effective conduct of negotiations and the right of citizens to be informed was readily apparent in determining whether the Commission was acting lawfully in its decision to refuse access to documents related to those negotiations to European Member of Parliament Sophie in ‘t Veld.