Open the doors of the Council meetings

///Hill & Knowlton: Guide to the Finnish Presidency of the European Union

Finland has a solid Scandinavian tradition of citizens’ access to information.The more Northern Member States (Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK) managed to establish the principles of open government in the EU institutions, starting from the aftermath of the “no” of the first Maastricht Treaty in 1992 in Denmark and ending with the approval of the regulation on public access to information in the EU institutions in 2001. The obligation for EU institutions to register every document they hold in a public register, which are then available to citizens via the internet, is a modern version of the original right of any Swedish citizen at any time to visit the offices of the public authorities and demand to study the books of the registrar. Then and now, this kind of open government is probably the best – and cheapest – innovation of public scrutiny of the administration.[:]

The first Finnish presidency in 1999 successfully increased public access to EU information. The permanent representation got praise from all sides for making hitherto unavailable documents accessible. This was a great help for citizens, journalists, enterprises and interest organisations alike to make their voices heard during the process of decision-making. During the Finnish presidency the Council also improved their public registers, making it easier to identify and access information.

Seven years later there is a need to further improve rules and practices on access to information. The Finnish presidency faces the growing demand to open the Council meetings for the public. It is a wellknown fact that Brussels is in an uneasy company with Havana and Pyongyang as it still makes laws behind closed doors. The Council has been under pressure especially from the European Parliament, and it knows it is only a question of time before lawmaking must be made public. Many believe that moment is now.

The UK presidency took the practical step of opening up the Council meetings further, but Austria – a Member State with a more modest record of open government – did not carry on in the UK’s footsteps. Finland is now expected to enable people to follow large parts of Council meetings via the Internet, also when the Council is legislating. The Finnish parliament insists that daylight needs to be shed at an early stage on particularly significant legislative proposals. In this way a proactive public debate on the real need and scope of such laws can be conducted. Take, for instance, the services directive….

Fears that ministers and high officials would thereafter only have real discussions and negotiations in new closed cabinets, must not stop the reform. It is simply unacceptable that laws which affect the rights and duties of nearly 500 million people be decided upon in secret. The European Ombudsman has also stressed, in a recent special report, the need to open the doors of the Council. On this he is backed by European Parliament.

This step towards transparency will no doubt help the citizens to compare what the leaders of Member States say at home and do in
Brussels. But the Scandinavian principle of transparency is also founded on making documents available for the public, with strictly defined exceptions. The European Parliament only has an informal right of initiative to ask the Commission for a review of the above-mentioned regulation on public access to documents (1049/2001). The shortcomings of these leverage tools are well-known and are now also listed in the newly approved report of MEP Michael Cashman. Finland will support the Commission in bringing a legislative proposal forward as soon as 2006 – as suggested by the Parliament.

Add to this planned active information and communication policy, and the Finnish presidency will again be remembered for making further concrete inroads towards EU openness.