Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Ombudsman rejects EU Commission’s secrecy over lobbyists

The Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has welcomed the European Ombudsman’s conclusion that data protection and privacy rules do not justify secrecy around the names of industrial lobbyists. Ombudsman Nikiforis Diamandouros describes the European Commission’s practice of blanking out of lobbyists’ names in documents released under EU access to document rules as “maladministration”. Diamandouros, however, postpones taking action to make the Commission end this malpractice until the European Court of Justice has delivered its judgement in a pending case on data protection versus access to documents (>>> Ombudsman’s decision).

In October 2005, CEO submitted a complaint against the European Commission after Directorate-General Trade – led by Peter Mandelson – had started blanking out the names of industry lobbyists in correspondence, minutes of meetings and other documents released under EU access to document rules. Corporate Europe Observatory has over the last years attempted to monitor DG Trade’s relations with corporate lobby groups such as the European Services Forum, which by many civil society groups are seen to enjoy privileged access and influence over EU trade policies. In its response to the Ombudsman, the Commission argued that the disclosure of the names of the lobbyists would “undermine the protection of the privacy and the integrity of the individual”. The Commission also referred to data protection rules as a justification for the secrecy. Corporate Europe Observatory considers this argumentation an abuse of rules that were never intended for keeping names of business lobbyists away from public scrutiny. In his final judgement the Ombudsman also rejects the Commission’s argumentation.

“Blanking out names of industry is the opposite of transparency. The Ombudsman’s judgement is good news, also for those within the European Commission that are dedicated to improving openness in EU decision-making”, says Olivier Hoedeman, research coordinator at Corporate Europe Observatory. But Corporate Europe Observatory regrets the Ombudman’s failure to take further action towards ending the European Commission’s distortion of privacy and data protection rules. “Nothing less than the right of citizens to information about the role of lobbyists in EU decision-making is at stake. It would be unacceptable if a verdict of the European Court of Justice in a very specific and only remotely related case could be misused to counter efforts to improve transparency on lobbying”, says Erik Wesselius, transparency campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory. The ruling of the European Court of Justice is expected in autumn.

A new CEO briefing paper, Lobbying the European Union by Committee, reveals strategies of corporate influence in the Commission’s expert groups, Council’s working groups and comitology committees.

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