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 Elinor Pecsteen
Recently, journalists from all EU member states raised, for the first time ever, a joint voice before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) against the refusal of the European Parliament (EP) to give access, on grounds of personal data protection, to information on how MEPs spend their allowances.
This development is no surprise as the endeavour by individuals and non-governmental organisations alike to hold the EU to its democratic imperative of openness and transparency has been a clearly increasing tendency over the years. However, meeting the expectations of the civil society is not always an easy task for the EU institutions, which must keep a fair balance between transparency and the protection of an individual’s privacy and integrity throughout their processes.
This balance has become essential in the present context of increasing numbers of requests for public access to EU institutions documents containing personal data. Yet, the question remains unclear as to when it is legitimate for an institution to refuse access to documents on the ground of personal data protection.
The following post attempts to shed some light on this question by discussing two recent CJEU judgments whose common threads allow for some interesting consistency to be found in the Court’s logic. On the basis of these judgments, it would seem that for the Court, the use of personal data protection as a justification for refusing requests for access to documents should be restricted. Such requests are essential to increase the confidence of citizens in the EU and require that, provided the conditions are fulfilled, full access be given to the institutions’ documents, personal data included. The Court specifies that the context of public mistrust in the EU and the potential dual role of its decision-makers must weigh in the institutions’ assessment of the conditions. Continue reading
By Laurens Ankersmit and Benedikt Pirker
Challenging EU rules on the basis of EU agreements is very difficult. Challenging EU rules on the basis of the Aarhus Convention is pretty much impossible. In ClientEarth v Commission the Court reasoned once again that the Aarhus Convention could not be relied upon to invalidate EU secondary legislation. In this case, the Court found that ClientEarth could not rely on the Aarhus Convention to challenge the Public Access to Documents Regulation (Regulation 1049/2001) in order to obtain commissioned studies on compliance by Member States with EU environmental law in the context of infringement procedures. One of the arguments put forward by the Court was that the Aarhus Convention could not be relied upon because it ‘was manifestly designed with the national legal orders in mind’. This is an extraordinary statement, since the EU is party to the Convention and thus bound by it. It was no doubt inspired by the concern to protect the infringement procedure contained in article 258 TFEU, raising a number of questions on the relationship between EU primary, secondary and international law. 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.