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The quest for EU documents: An exemplary journey

Understanding EU-level decision-making is complicated. You have to be quite an expert to search and find relevant EU documents, even when they are public.

So getting an idea on what is going on right now in the EU is beyond the capabilities of most, which is why I am also interested in the renewal of Eur-Lex as I have shown in a previous blog post. At the time of writing I’am still waiting for an answer on a Freedom of Information request for some Council documents on this matter.

But let me you show with an exemplary journey through EU documents what I mean:

I was just looking at the Calendar of meetings of the EU Council for today. As you can see, the calendar not only includes minister-level meetings but the working-level meetings of the Council too. At this stage, I’ve actually already left the sphere of attention of probably ~99% of people not dealing with the EU on a daily bases. Most people wouldn’t even realise that this level exists (or that it is documented).

Now say I was interested in the agenda of the second meeting listed for today, that is for the Working Party on “HORIZONTAL AGRICULTURAL QUESTIONS“. You may notice that the agendas of the meetings are not linked.

Yet, since I know from EU experience that the agenda should exist, I go to the search interface for Council documents. In the search field “Words in … Title” I enter “HORIZONTAL AGRICULTURAL QUESTIONS”, “13″ “January”, “2011″ which brings me to the following result page showing that the agenda exists. On this page, a click to the PDF file symbol on the right takes me to the agenda of the meeting.

Now I see that the only item of substance on the Agenda is the ”Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – the CAP towards 2020: meeting the food, natural resources and territorial challenges of the future“.

If you follow EU decision-making, you will have learned that any document starting with “Communication from the Commission…” has an official document reference, even though it is not mentioned in the agenda.

I want to know what this document reference is, because I know I will need it. Since the current Eur-Lex search is really bad if you don’t have the right number, I google for the full title of the Communication and find out, on the first Google result (which is a Eur-Lex page!), at the middle of the site, that the document reference it is “COM/2010/0672″ (i.e. COM(2010)672). There I also find the link to the PDF of the original Commission document.

Had I gone to Pre-Lex search interface (the search for all interinstitutional procedures of the EU) to search for the full procedure based on the title of this document, I would neither have found the Commission Communication nor the Working Party agenda.

Entering the title of the Communication into the search field on the right of the Pre-Lex search results in an error. So I really needed the document reference. I enter the document reference (COM, 2010, 672) that I’ve found before and this leads to the interinstitutional dossier on the Commission Communication. There you will note that the last reference to this procedure is from December 2010, namely a link to a press release from a Council meeting. The press release link leads to a non-existing page… [Update: I am told on Twitter, here & here, that the link works for them. It still doesn't work with me, though - don't know why.] What you also notice is that there is no mentioning of any working-level meetings on Pre-Lex.

You may, however, remember, that this is where my little journey has started. In other words: For anyone looking for the ongoing decision-making on this procedure who doesn’t know all the search interfaces of the EU, the quest would have ended here, that is on a non-existing press release of the Council from December 2010, without knowing that on the Council working level the procedure continues.

For the sake of completeness, I also wanted to see what the European Parliament has been doing on this matter. Knowing where to search, I go to OEIL, the process-tracing interface of the EP. I search for the procedure by using the search by Commission document number (remember: it was COM,2010,672). Two clicks further, I arrive at the respective procedure in the European Parliament.

There, I realise the Parliament doesn’t seem to be working on this for the moment. You also won’t find any references to anything the Council has been doing on this so far. So if you had been trying to find out what was going on by using the Parliament search, you would have ended at more or less nothing.

I could continue this quest, but I will stop here…

If the world was perfect, I would have gone to the Council calendar, and the agenda of the Working Party had been already linked. In the agenda, a link would have brought me to the original Commission Communication. And on the page of the Commission Communication I would have been able to go back to the Council or to the Parliament (or to any other EU institution’s) website and would have found all meetings and meeting documents related to this.

Technically this perfect world idea should be possible. But the world of the EU is not perfect, I’m afraid, at least not yet…

Update: By chance, I just came across a number of related documents with (member states’) delegations’ comments on this Communication. They are not public…



8 Responses to The quest for EU documents: An exemplary journey

  1. avatar Raphael says:

    Hi Ronny,

    Very interesting story. I experienced it several myself when I wanted to find Commission documents for different stories. And every time I ended on Google to make the search, as the UE sites were useless.

    I wonder if you eventually received the document you were looking for, using the Freedom of information request ? Is that request works when you are not a mainstream media ?

    I know the Reuters had to use it to obtain documents on biofuel studies saying that these were more polluting than conventional fuels. http://www.euractiv.com/en/sustainability/once-hidden-eu-report-reveals-damage-biodiesel-news-469920

    I admire the courage you have to fight with euro bureaucracy !

    Raphaël

  2. avatar @calixte says:

    Great (eye-opening) post.

    The conclusion is both encouraging and sobering: “Technically this perfect world idea should be possible. But the world of the EU is not perfect, I’m afraid, at least not yet…”

    My question: Where do you think this (un-efficient & time-consuming) information architecture comes from?

  3. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    @ Raphaël,

    I’m still waiting for the Council reply regarding my FOI request. But since everyone can request documents according to Regulation 1049/2001 or, when it is on environmental information, Regulation 1367/2006, I expect to be treated in the way as mainstream media are treated.

    @ calixte

    The dispersed information architecture is probably the result different speeds of development of the infrastructures in different EU institutions and, subsequently, a lack of co-operation between these institutions to get things together in a coherent way. On the technical side, I’d suspect that those who know how to make the systems better are usually not well-understood by those who need to decide on the changes of the systems.

    Many EU officials also have a lack of understanding for the needs of people who are not Brussels-based. This is not bad will, but if you are in the EU bubble, you kind of know what to look for and if you know this, you either use the EU platform searches or you go to Google. But if you don’t know more or less exactly what you are searching you will only get unsatisfactory or incomplete results, which is probably the case for most non-Brussels people.

  4. avatar @calixte says:

    @ Ronny,

    Thank you for this explanation. So basically institutional inertia and insider knowledge are the main source of this situation. But we can propose alternatives to the current mess provided they give us the data: figuring out where to find the documents is a bit of a nightmare for an outsider. Once we have identified the main source(s) of the documents, it’s then possible to re-engineer the information architecture and build new (and better) applications on top of it.

    This timeline shows how technology impacted transparency in the US Congress: http://sunlightfoundation.com/projects/transparency-timeline/

    2011 looks good: http://gov20.govfresh.com/clay-johnson-on-key-trends-for-gov-2-0-and-open-government-in-2011/

    What about Europe? Who are the people & institutions behind these systems?

  5. avatar Erin says:

    KADME, a data management company in Norway (where I’m working) had the same issues facing the oil and gas industry. KADME found a way to search all data by having access to the metadata and it made it possible to easily find public data and view them in a logical way (tables or by map). This technology, called Whereoil, was used to power a geoportal called ArcticWeb (www.arcticweb.com) that allows any user to search all public data that exists relating to energy in Norway. Try it out – you’ll be amazed! Like searching through EU databases, prior to this initiative it was a similar sort of situation. Maybe what the EU needs is this technology in their own search engine!

  6. avatar @calixte says:

    @Erin
    Thank you for the link. Is this technology proprietary or open source?

  7. avatar Erin says:

    sorry, i missed your question earlier. The technology is open-source, but licensed.

  8. Pingback: A well-reformed EUR-Lex would be sexy indeed: A short story on access to EU documents | Polscieu

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