European Commission proposes reforms, seeks public input on greater access to EU documents

19 April 2007

The European Commission yesterday published a Green Paper and launched a new public consultation process to reform existing rules on public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission records. This action represents an important step in the European Transparency Initiative, launched in November 2005 with the goal of a “‘high level of transparency’ to ensure that the Union is ‘open to public scrutiny and accountable for its work.'” Recognizing exponential increases in access requests for Commission documents and a growing body of case law based on the current Regulation No. 1049/2001, first established in 2001, the Green Paper proposes a number of reforms to improve and harmonize the current system with these court decisions and changing needs for transparency. The paper submits several specific matters for public consultation, including: the promotion of active dissemination of information, incorporating standards for access to environmental information established by the Arhus Convention, and finding an appropriate balance between transparency and privacy concerns. As part of this effort, the Commission has established a dedicated Web site to receive comments from the public on proposed changes to the current Regulation.

The Commission’s efforts take place against an international background of recent precedent-setting legal action on access to information, a trend which has yet to be accepted by the European courts. In October 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in the case of Claude Reyes et. al. vs. Chile that Article 13 of the American Convention of Human Rights provides a human right of access to government information as part of its guarantee of freedom of thought and expression. European courts have repeatedly declined to find such a right in a comparable provision of the European Convention on Human Rights, including in the cases of Leander v. Sweden in 1987 and Guerra v. Italy in 1998. Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe, recently stated that the IACHR decision “will be invaluable for activists who need government information to defend other human rights, protect the environment, and fight corruption.” Access Info Europe and other right-to-know advocates have urged European courts and authorities to reconsider earlier rulings rejecting information access as a human right. The consultation period that began yesterday with the release of the Green Paper provides a new opportunity for the expansion of the public’s right to know.

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