Freedom of information, EU-style
October 27, 2008
Poor Gordon Brown. No sooner does he save the world than he finds that, as they say, questions are being asked about Peter “Lord” Mandelson, whom he brought back into the government to help save the world some more.
Peter “Lord” Mandelson had claimed that he didn’t know yacht-owning Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska until 2006. On Friday this claim was clarified: Mandelson had in fact dined with Deripaska in 2004 “at a fashionable Moscow restaurant just weeks after he was appointed Trade Commissioner” for the EU. Later, Mandelson “cut tariffs on imports of aluminium into the EU which benefited Mr Deripaska’s company Rusal — one of the world’s largest manufacturers of aluminium — to the tune of tens of millions of pounds.”
So as to head off any suggestion of impropriety, the Telegraph has been asking the EU for the records of all Mandelson’s meetings with Deripaska while the former was trade commissioner. The EU’s response is not exactly helpful, as the newspaper reports:
Under the European Union’s “access to documents” regulations, upheld in the EU courts last year, the Commission should make public details of meetings between Commissioners, their officials and lobbyists.
But repeated requests by The Sunday Telegraph for details of meetings between Lord Mandelson and Mr Deripaska, under the EU’s transparency “1049 rule”, have been flatly refused.
The European Commission has insisted that any records or diaries of formal meetings relating to Lord Mandelson are not “documents”.
An EU spokesman said: “The concept of document to which regulation 1049 applies must be distinguished from that of information. The public’s right of access covers only documents and not information in the wider meaning. Only information contained in existing documents has to be treated under the regulation.”
Well, according to the EU regulation in question, 1049/2001, a “document” is defined thus in Article 3(a):
a) ‘document’ shall mean any content whatever its medium (written on paper or stored in electronic form or as a sound, visual or audiovisual recording) concerning a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions falling within the institution’s sphere of responsibility
Records or minutes or diaries of meetings between Deripaska and Peter “Lord” Mandelson would evidently be “content” that concerns “activities” of the Trade Commissioner. So they clearly would qualify as “documents” as well as “information” under this definition.
The problem appears to be that, according to an analysis by Tony Bunyuan [pdf] in September, the Commission is desperately trying to narrow the definition of “document” from that given above, so as not to have to release documents it doesn’t want to. In April, for example, the Commissioners proposed to add to the above definition of document the proviso that it should have been
formally transmitted to one or more recipients or otherwise registered, or received by an institution.
In other words, if a diary or record of a meeting has not been formally transmitted to other people, it’s not a document. I suppose a cynic might point out that the kinds of document that are not formally transmitted to other people are often just those kinds of document that people wish to keep secret. Luckily, according to the Commission’s current “understanding” of what a document is, if it’s secret, it doesn’t exist!
What kinds of “document” have you denied the very existence of recently, readers?