Recently, I have remarked changes in the procedures for handling access to documents requests in the EU Council. Especially a new written procedure sparked some protest among EU member states, which led to the need to clarify the difference between the informal and formal procedures in the responsible Working Party on Information (meeting summary, p. 4)
Now, the Council has finally published its letter to the EU Ombudsman sent on 30 January 2012 in which it explains how it has adapted its procedures to speed up its decision-making on freedom of information requests:
- - more staff in the Transparency unit of the Council Secretariat
- - assignment of one contact person in the Transparency Unit to liaise with member states (which is necessary in the appeals’ stage)
- - a new special mailbox for the interaction between the Transparency unit and the member states
- - the possibility to call for ad hoc Working Party meetings to decide upon appeals (‘confirmatory applications’)
- - an informal written procedure at Working Party level
- - when necessary a formal written procedure at Council level to formally pass decisions when the Council does not meet for several weeks.
The letter is interesting not just for these changes but also because it describes quite in detail how the Council handles access to document request.
The relevance of these procedures and the changes can be seen in the statistical report on the implementation of the EU access to documents regulation in 2011 (draft published 30 March 2012). In total, 2116 initial requests for 9641 documents were made in 2011 to the Council (~26 documents per day).
What surprises me is that there were only 27 appeals (‘confirmatory applications’) although 2238 of these documents where either not or only partially released. In a letter I received last year from the EU Council when full access to a document was refused, the last line clearly read:
” According to Article 7(2) of the Regulation, you may submit a confirmatory application requesting the Council to reconsider this position, within 15 working days of receiving this reply “
My guess is that this rather bureaucratic way of pointing to the right to appeal the decision does not sound very motivating for those who are not used to deal with EU institutions. And those who are used to deal with them knew (in 2011) that it may take so much time to get a reply (1-2 months) that most appeals would be practically useless.
And all those who really need information quickly can also get them informally as the Council admits in its 2011 access to documents report (p. 10):
“Journalists … accounted for only 3,3 % of the requests at the initial stage. This is mainly due to the fact that the institutions’ public registers of documents represent only one of several possible sources of information for the press.”
Let’s hope that the adaptations of the procedures in the Council bring journalists and (blogging…) citizens closer together when it comes to the speed with which they can access EU (Council) documents.