March 2001

Victory in fight for EU openness

Heidi Hautala, a Finnish MEP, believes that she has scored a partial victory in her campaign for openness in the EU decision-making process. Hautala had taken the EU Council of Ministers to court to secure the availability of documents relating to arms exports.

According to a news item broadcast by the radio news of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (13 March 2001), only Spain supported the Council of Ministers when the case was first heard at the European Court of Justice. Four member countries sided with Hautala's quest for free access to sensitive documents.

The decision by the European Court of Justice could turn out to be important, as it could have a direct impact on future directives and strengthen the case for openness. But Hautala fears that if the Council of Ministers wins the case, it can keep secret even more of its documents.

The European Court of Justice, sitting in Luxembourg, held its second hearing on the case. The Council of Ministers had insisted on a new hearing after it lost the case earlier in a lower court. It is not known when the case will be ruled on. Hautala didn't want to forecast the result but said that the case for the Council of Ministers is not convincing.

The European Ombudsman Jacob Söderman criticises the Council of Ministers for limiting free access to documents. Söderman thinks that the Council representing member countries should consider its negative attitude to availability of documents. He thinks that documents should be freely available unless there are good reasons for secrecy.

Söderman emphasises that it is possible to obtain documents only if citizens know about their existence. This is why the Council of Ministers should have a list of all documents, he says.

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