Access Info Unveils Question to Brussels Report on Requesting EU Information

19 November 2009

Brussels, Belgium In April 2009, an internal guide from the EU Directorate General (DG) for Trade revealed that public officials were being given tips on how not to record information and how to avoid providing documents to the public. Access Info has launched a report on its follow-up investigations into the internal guides of 16 other DGs. The report, “Question to Brussels: How Should a Citizen Request EU Documents?” Access Info and Corporate Europe Observatory is also meeting with the DG for Trade to discuss its controversial internal guide on access to documents, which was amended in June after protests from civil society.

 

Particularly controversial in the leaked DG Trade guidance from April 2009 was the now-deleted instruction on how not to record relations with industry lobbyists, such as “don’t refer to the great lunch you have had with an industry representative privately or add a PS asking if he/she would like to meet for a drink.”

Even though the egregious comment above has been deleted, Access Info has revealed that there are still problematic provisions in the guidance, such as this explicit recommendation encouraging double reporting:

The best thing to do is to make two separate documents, i.e. one factual report, and a separate one with the assessment of the report (and possibly suggestions for follow-up). By doing this, we avoid having to “whiten” certain parts of the report, which creates an additional work burden (scrutinise the documents, determine what has to be deleted and justify why it has been deleted …) and which always carries a risk of confirmatory action, or even recourse to the Ombudsman or the Court (who may ultimately find that the invocation of exception grounds was not justified and even order the deleted parts to be disclosed …)

To conduct research for “Questions for Brussels,” Access Info’s team filed requests with 16 DGs asking simply for copies of any documents giving staff guidance on how to handle access to documents requests. This report is based on the responses from the 17 bodies, including the internal guidelines provided by eight DGs and by the Secretariat General.

The research found lack of clarity about the rules for access to documents is leading to problems in the treatment of requests for information. Although none of the other guides were anything like as problematic as that of DG Trade, one serious failing is that most of the guides, including that of the Secretariat General are out of date and do not give guidance on how to interpret the rules in line with recent European Court of Justice jurisprudence.

The Access Info also found numerous obstacles facing members of the public filing a request for documents for the first time. The researchers found that some DGs do not offer clear mechanisms for filing access to documents requests, do not treat requests submitted via website enquiry forms as formal requests, do not acknowledge these requests, do not issue official access to documents reference numbers, and sometimes refuse to process the requests. Some of this behavior flouts the very clear guidelines from the Secretariat General that each DG should receive and process requests.

“For members of the public, it’s hard to know where to start if you have a question for Brussels,” comments Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe. “For those concerned about reducing the public perception of the European Union as distant and impenetrable, making it easier to ask a question would be a very good place to start.”

Another serious problem is languages: only 2 of the 16 DGs had an internet page about access to documents in all the official languages of the EU. “If you don’t speak English, you will fall at the first hurdle when trying to access EU information,” added Darbishire.

DG Competition refused to disclose its internal guidelines on the grounds that they would “harm the decision-making process” and “had not been validated by the Commission.” Access Info is appealing this refusal.

 

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