Talking Politics

Europe’s new secrecy plan

They're meeting on Friday the 13th, which is never a good sign. Tomorrow, European officials get together and decide how best to stop you accessing information about their decision making process.

They will propose three quite insane things: to change the definition of what a document is, to create new exemptions from the public's right of access to EU materials and to keep the legal advice the EU receives secret. They will then present the ideas to the European parliament and turn them into law.

If you thought the EU was shady before, just you wait for what comes next.

Under the plans, a host of new exemptions would be added to public right-of-access regulations. This might take the form of block exemptions or they might be tailored specifically to three situations: competition cases, the context of court proceedings and infringement procedures.

Infringement procedures are the most important. When the European Commission initiates legal proceedings against a member state, the public would not be allowed to see documents related to it. Even the legal opinions would be exempt. It's a huge power grab. When unelected officials take your elected government to court, you will be prevented from finding out about the case until it is over.

On the ground - and quite illegally - this has been happening for years. Members of the public naive enough to care about the way they are governed have long been prevented from accessing infringement proceedings while the process takes place.

There is no justification for it under case law. The court of justice found the opinions of legal services of European institutions should be publicly accessible. Officials just ignored it. Now they are changing the law to fit the precise way in which they break it.

The ramifications of this are startling. Witness how brazen and arrogant the EU has become. It is a tyranny, albeit one of tedium and officialdom rather than violence. That does not make its effect on the sovereignty of the democratic state any less appalling.

Elsewhere in the discussions, the usual banal evils of secretive officials will all be present and accounted for. Take the document discussion, a curious mixture of Monty Python slapstick and Soviet plotting. Currently, everything is classified as a document. Now officials want only formally registered items to count, so the others can be unaffected by right-of-access rules. We're not quite sure how they will do it. There could be a formal register, or a system which involves senior management signing off on papers. But the word 'document' will be redefined to protect EU officials from public scrutiny.

The important thing to note is the direction of travel: everything is about keeping the EU's processes, particularly its legal processes, secret. Just like all organisations, from local councils to multinational corporations, it is developing a bunker mentality. Except this time, the organisation in question has legal and political dominance over the democratic governments of Europe.

Anais Berthie, an access to information lawyer fighting the proposals, thinks the EU has an effect on the assumptions of those who run it.

"It's amazing, when you meet people in European institutions, they have this mindset and don't feel accountable to citizens," she tells me over the phone from Brussels. "They are far from their national government and home countries and they feel they can take decisions without being accountable and transparent.

"The rule, according to courts, is towards access, even if there are exceptions. When you meet people from European institutions they are the other way round. Their rule is prevention of access. The mindset has been there for a while now and now the convention [on access-to-information] is being review they have the chance to formalise it."

We've brought this on ourselves. Even now there's precious little coverage of what goes on in Brussels. European politics is so boring, so mind-numbingly tedious, that the European public prefers the drama of its national political scene. Who wouldn't pick Sarkozy's mad Napoleonic outbursts, or Cameron's red-faced pasty shame to the grey bespectacled suits of the European Union?

That's how they win. They bore you into indifference. And now they're going to shut you out.

WRITTEN BY...