08/29/2012 12:34 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

The EU's Attack on Citizens' Right to Know

The European Commission is engaged in a war against its citizens right to know.

This might not strike you as a very important issue. On the contrary, it goes to the heart of democracy.

Only when citizens and journalists have access to the information that authorities use to make decisions can democracy work. Citizens need information to participate in decision making. Journalists need it to keep politicians honest. When authorities can make decisions behind closed doors it is convenient for them but death to democracy. Tyranny thrives on secrecy.

European law requires that information be freely available. This includes the emails, draft documents, legal opinions, and studies done in the course of government business. Citizens have a right to this information.

Unfortunately, the European Commission's rhetoric about being transparent and its actions are kilometres apart. When citizens write to ask for information, the Commission routinely denies the request. This forces citizens to negotiate their way through an appeals process. The Commission routinely denies the appeals as well. This forces citizens to sue in the European Court, which few citizens or citizens' groups have the means to do.

When you sue, the Commission routinely delays the proceedings as long as possible. In one case my own ClientEarth brought last year, the Secretary General of the Commission, Catherine Day, repeatedly wrote that she would do her "utmost" to make a decision on releasing the documents in the shortest possible time. Almost a year after these broken promises, she released some of the documents. Of course, by that time the policy making process to which the documents were relevant had moved on. And thus the long course of delay had succeeded in its objective -- to defeat citizens' right to informed participation in the decision making process that affects their lives.

Some other recent examples of the Commission's secrecy:

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the biggest executive agency in the EU with over 500 staff, are responsible for implementing REACH, the law under which hazardous chemicals are regulated. They keep secret and refuse to produce the names of the companies that have registered substances connected to cancer, obesity, water pollution, endocrine disruption, etc. Citizens have a right to the information, and releasing the information would lead to greater accountability.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) regulates pesticides. Crucial to decisions about allowing pesticides are decisions about what science is used. Committees in EFSA make these decisions and it is almost certain that manufacturers are sitting on the committees. But EFSA keeps secret and refuses to disclose who sits on the committees. Citizen oversight cannot happen if decision makers are undisclosed.

The European Council refuses to disclose legal opinions it bases decisions on, even though The European Court of Justice found that citizens have a right to these opinions. An example of why seeing legal opinions is important: We won a major victory for whales in the International Whaling Commission recently. Denmark and Greenland wanted to increase Greenland's kill. The EU's lawyers wrote a false legal opinion saying that countries that disagreed had to abstain. The truth was that all EU countries had to vote against. We won this fight, but transparency would help prevent false opinions from supporting illegal behaviour.

But there is more. The Commission is not satisfied with the successes of its policy of secrecy, delay and denial. It is engaged in a radical fight against its citizens' right to know.

It introduced a new bill that would severely restrict access. The bill would change the definition of "information," so as to rule out access to all studies, drafts, emails, and so on, leaving only sanitized reports the Commission decided to make public. This cuts the heart out of freedom of information, which is about journalists and the public being able to see the same information as the government and form their own opinion. The bill would also change the presumption for many things such as legal opinions from disclosure to secrecy. This quiet revolution in concealment would dramatically reduce democracy in the EU. It is also against the basic principles of the founding treaties of the Union and of an international agreement.

It is a Soviet idea of what citizens should know.

Just recently, the Commission's bill was killed in Council. A ClientEarth lawyer, Anais Berthier, worked with Statewatch and Access-Info-Europe and its network of over 200 NGOs and journalist to defeat the bill.

This was a genuinely important victory. But the Commission has not given up. It has already taken to the field against its own citizens' right of democratic participation again. And the Council under the Cypress presidency has taken up the bill. Only citizens can again beat the brutal attack on democracy that the Commission quietly pursues, and keep on fighting until the Commission is finally and completely defeated, or obeys the laws which are its foundation.