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Access to EU Commission documents: 2010 statistics and 2011 academic realities [Updated]

Yesterday, the EU Commission published its report on the application of the EU access to documents regulation in 2010 (PDF). The report gives some interesting figures, but one should see them in relation to reality, which shall be done below.

A) The report’s figures in a quick and selective summary:

  • In 2010, there were 6127 requests for EU Commission documents that were not yet public, up 21% (!) from the previous year.
  • Almost one in four requests came from people who identified themselves as “Academics”.
  • In about 18% of all cases, only partial or no access was granted (~1100 cases).
  • Only 181 confirmatory applications were received in 2010, which shows that most who receive a negative answer on their initial requests do not use their legal right to appeal.
  • In 50% of the decisions on confirmatory applications, the previous refusal to give (partial) access was confirmed. This means however that there’s at least a one-in-two chance of getting a little more or even full access to a document if one goes into a confirmatory application (which only a minority does).
  • About every fourth refusal to grant initial access was made to protect the internal decision-making process of the Commission (exception laid down in Article 4(3) of Regulation 1049/2001 on access to EU documents). In about every fifth refusal to grant access in confirmatory applications this exception was applied.

B) The 2011 reality of an “Academic” requesting a document where access was initially refused looks like this:

  • On 30 July [Update: through this website] I have requested document SEC(2011)1968, a meeting protocol of a meeting of the chefs de cabinets.
  • Yesterday,  12 August, the same day the above-mentioned report was issued, I received a refusal to grant access to this document from the “Advice, developments and logistics” unit of the Commission’s Secretariat General, because publication of the document would “seriously undermine the institutions’ decision-making process“. This refusal was given without any argument why this is so in the particular document requested. I believe it should be public, especially those parts of the documents that deal with legislative matters for a which a general interest overrides the institutional secrecy interets.
  • Yesterday evening, I filed a confirmatory application with the Access to Documents unit of the European Commission. This means it will be officially registered on Monday, 15 August. The Commission then has 15 working days for a reply. On my email, I received an automatic “Out of Office” reply from the access to documents email account with the following text:

The activity of the European Commission being reduced during August, your requests for access to documents will be handled as soon as possible.

C) Some remarks triggered by this automatic reply:

  • Every document that is not made available in a public register even if is to be made public means we “Academics” are dependent on the reaction speed of EU officials who sometimes might go on holidays (which is there good right) or who respond to requests with varying speed (which may in many cases not be their individual fault). This makes every official document requests some kind of surprise packaged when it comes to timing. I’ve had replies within a day and replies that took almost a month (15 working days can be long), then asking for prolongation (another 15 working days can be longer).
  • Every request for documents that is refused, wrongly replied to, postponed or has to go into a confirmatory stage prolongs the research process for those of us who request access as “Academics”. This is valuable research time and delay (or refusal) in getting documents can be problematic in many ways. This is particularly annoying knowing that documents you request through the official, legally prescribed channels, are already available to lobbyists and other  Brussels insiders for a month – and yes, I know this is the case for some documents I requested. Every delay or refusal thus widens the gap between those who play by the rules and those who don’t need to care for them.

D) In summary:

  • One can see the Commission report as a positive account about how many documents requested are made available to those who request them, either in the initial or the confirmatory request. In reality however, (almost) every request equals a (set of) document(s) that is not (easily) available in a public register.
  • In reality, every request handled not immediately means a delay, every initial refusal means more delay, every refusal to grant access after an appeal means research can’t continue or has to rely on contacts to informants who can provide you with (early) access informally.
  • I don’t see that the Commission’s report reflects this reality appropriately. Just saying, as an “Academic” concerned.
  • It would also be nice to get not just the summarised statistics from the report but the the full information as raw, open data. I’d like to see which documents were actually requested and published, which Commission directorates general are more likely to publish requested documents, whether academic requests are handled more or less positively than requests by lawyers etc.. The present summary statistics given by the Commission raise as many questions as they answer and the interesting answers to these questions are in the raw data.

E) Happy holidays to all those officials on holiday!

Update:

On Tuesday, 16 August at 11.50 I have received the confirmation that my confirmatory application has been registered which shows that holidays do not seem to matter (much) so far for this freedom of information request (Addition: Although it could have been registered on Monday, 15 August… Addition 2: But 15 August seems to be a public holiday in Belgium – it isn’t where I live…).



4 Responses to Access to EU Commission documents: 2010 statistics and 2011 academic realities [Updated]

  1. avatar Dagmawi Elehu says:

    How would you compare the EU procedure for access of documents to the procedures in different EU countries, with Sweden (and Finland) probably being extreme on one side.

    In Sweden the presumption is that all documents handled in all public entities are public, unless specifically classified. These documents must be stored in an orderly fashion (which in practice means that there must be indexes or lists of all documents) and made available by the public entity to anyone with haste, without asking for reasons or requiring compensation (except in some cases).

    Is such a procedure possible in EU and would it be good?

  2. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    @Dagmawi

    Yes, indeed, this would be good. The problem with the EU level is the mix of extremely different cultures regarding this issue. Last year, I’ve written a short discussion paper on the topic of culture and EU Freedom of Information for the Transparency International EU Office if you are interested.

    But there are also two sides to this topic: One is the legal side and one is how those requests are handled in practice. I’ve been writing this post exactly to show that law and practice can yield quite different results.

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