Dear Mr Gravili,
I don’t know whether the EUobserver quoted you out of context, and whether you meant to say that only (or mostly) big corporation lawyers and “nutty NGOs” make use of the EU transparency rules. I don’t know whether you have ever tried yourself to request documents from the European Commission. Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t because you only know this institution from the inside.
I just want to raise two points, trying not to repeat what I have written extensively about this subject over the last years here on this blog.
First, I am one of those “concerned citizens”, one who has requested documents from the Commission and the Council several times now. And I have done so because I needed the documents when I was working as a volunteer activist in an NGO. I have done so because I needed documents for my academic research. I have done so because I simply wanted to blog about a certain topic.
And I have had all sorts of reactions: Friendly, proactive provision of large piles of (digital documents). Quick, dry replies, with the documents requested attached. Short email discussions before getting parts of what I wanted. Month-long discussions to get four officially registered documents (not some emails or off-the-gut remarks scribbled on a sheet of pape), a process in which my rights were first ignored, then delayed, going beyond the legal time limits – a case that is still pending with the Ombudsman. The problem with all these requests is:
The institutions never seemed to have a problem because I ask to much. The institutions only seemed to have problems when I ask for documents that actually matter.
You fear transparency when it could lead to actual democratic discussions. When I wanted to know backgrounds of the decisions you present to us, the “concerned citizens”, decisions for which you refuse to provide me with the arguments, the amendments, the debate that made them become what they are, I was put on hold or I was refused access. At best, you told me that you did not want me to get the documents as long as they still mattered. You wanted me to know what is in them when it was time to write the history book.
But you don’t want those requesting documents to make democratic politics, to start blogging discussions, to find disagreement, difficult compromise processes in which one argument won over the other. You say that if I knew this, there would be no compromise next time. Which is your way of saying: “We don’t want you to know which side won, because it would show who is in power, which DG or which member states gets what it proposed and which didn’t. We don’t want you to understand the background deals that made one side win this time and the other next time. At least, we don’t want you to know now.”
This leads me to my second point: If only corporate lawyers and “nutty” or not-so-nutty NGOs request documents, it is because they are the only ones who have the time and/or the money to wait the time it takes to get decisions from the institutions for documents that actually matter. They are the only ones who have the institutional memories to fight with you over your arguments why you would not give out interesting documents. Most problematically, under the Commission proposals for the reform of the EU access to documents law is also one proposal to prolong the time institutions have to reply to our legitimate requests. In practice, this could mean that a citizen might have to wait up to four or five months to get a reply when s/he has to go to confirmatory application.
For an institution, half a year is nothing. For a big corporation, it may just be fine. But for us, “concerned citizens”, half a year is endless. If I cannot get a document within one or two days as a blogger or journalist, I may not be able to write the story I would like to write. If I cannot get a document within two weeks as an NGO, I may not be able to organise political action in time. If I cannot get a document within two months as an academic, my research funding may end.
So please, Mr Gravili, stop complaining about those who abuse the system – those with money and time will always find ways to abuse the system – and make the system better for those who actually want to use it properly. Stop talking about nutty NGOs and corporate lawyers, and start spending your time thinking about how to support more and better transparency instead of defending Commission proposals that will make it even harder for engaged citizens, friendly NGOs, and interested academics to get timely access to EU documents.
Your nutty blogger,