Select Committee on European Communities Sixteenth Report



SIXTEENTH REPORT


25 JULY 2000


By the Select Committee appointed to consider European Union documents and other matters relating to the European Union.

ORDERED TO REPORT

PUBLIC ACCESS TO EU DOCUMENTS

COM(2000) 30 final/2  Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents

PART 1: INTRODUCTION

1. Access to documents has for some time played a significant role in giving effect, in a practical way, to the principle of openness in the European Union. For over six years access to Commission and Council documents has been governed by a Code of Conduct. Most other EU institutions, including the European Parliament, and EU bodies have adopted similar rules. The Community Courts and the European Ombudsman have both worked to make the regime enforceable and effective. The Amsterdam Treaty requires a significant further step to be taken, from a code of conduct approach to a more clearly rights-based regime.

2. Declaration 17 to the Treaty of Maastricht 1992 recognised that openness is an essential aspect of democracy and of strengthening public confidence in the institutions of the European Union. The Amsterdam Treaty went further in embracing the principle of openness, first, by including it among the general principles of the Union (Article 1 TEU) and, second, by introducing a specific provision granting EU citizens and residents a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents (Article 255 TEC). Article 255 states:

"1. Any citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State, shall have a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents, subject to the principles and the conditions to be defined in accordance with paragraphs 2 and 3.

2. General principles and limits on grounds of public or private interest governing this right of access to documents shall be determined by the Council, acting in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 251 within two years of the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam.

3. Each institution referred to above shall elaborate in its own Rules of Procedure specific provisions regarding access to its documents."

3. On 1 February 2000, the Commission presented its proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. The draft Regulation sets out rules for giving effect to the right of access contained in Article 255. It defines the scope of documents covered by the proposal and sets out the grounds on which access may be refused. It lays down a procedure to be followed by those seeking access to documents and by the institutions in handling applications, and provides for appeals. The draft Regulation also requires the institutions to maintain public registers of documents.

4. A substantial measure of controversy surrounded the introduction of the proposal, with the European Ombudsman and the President of the Commission exchanging views publicly in the Wall Street Journal, and it soon became clear that certain of the provisions of the proposed Regulation were contentious. This report examines the proposal in detail.

5. The timetable, both from European and United Kingdom perspectives, is important. The Regulations should, in accordance with Article 255 (2), be adopted before 1 May 2001. Negotiation has already commenced in the Council Information Working Group. The work will be carried on by the French Presidency. As a measure subject to co-decision, the draft Regulation is also under consideration in the European Parliament. Work there will be led by the Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights. The Committee on Constitutional Affairs will also be making an input into the report which is proposed to go to the plenary in the autumn. Significantly, our consideration of the proposed Regulation has also taken place at a time when draft freedom of information legislation is before this House. That said, in this Report we concentrate on the draft Community instrument, though comparisons with national regimes are inevitable and in some cases the Regulation and domestic legislation will overlap.

6. The inquiry on the proposed Regulation was carried out by Sub-Committee E (Law and Institutions) under the chairmanship of Lord Hope of Craighead. The membership of the Sub-Committee is listed in Appendix 1. The witnesses are listed in Appendix 2. Statistical information relating to the operation of the Code is reproduced in Appendix 3. The evidence, written and oral, is printed with the Report. We would like to thank all those who assisted in the inquiry, especially those who travelled from overseas: Ms Britta Lejon, Minister for Democratic Issues and Public Administration, and Ms Helena Jäderblom from the Swedish Ministry of Justice, Professor Deirdre Curtin of the University of Utrecht and Ms Mary Preston and Ms Claire Durand from the Commission.


 
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