Dutch fight EU code on secrecy: Legal battle launched to open up documents to public scrutiny

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The Independent Online
THE Dutch European Affairs Minister yesterday condemned a new secrecy code restricting access to European Union documents as 'worse than the behaviour of Nato at the height of the Cold War'.

Piet Dankert spoke as the Dutch government began legal proceedings at the European Court of Justice, challenging a Council of Ministers decision greatly restricting public access to documents.

The Council in December imposed a blanket secrecy order over a whole range of documents and proposals from the burgeoning Euro-bureaucracy, despite earlier promises of openness. The decision caused outrage in the Netherlands, which sees its much-praised open system of government being eroded by European integration and the secrecy of the Council.

The 'code of conduct' was agreed by majority vote over Dutch, Danish and Greek objections, rather than by unanimous assent, which Mr Dankert says is required for issues affecting European citizens' rights.

This bout of Euro-censorship has made the EU even less accessible to citizens than before, Mr Dankert believes, and by taking the issue to the Court the Netherlands hopes to force a wider public debate about the secretive nature of the EU.

The Maastricht treaty put EU justice, foreign, security and immigration measures outside the reach of national legislatures and the European parliament. Now the latest gagging order has smothered hopes of more accountability. Ironically, these were expressed in a Council document, which hoped that the public would in future be given 'the widest possible access to documents held by the Commission and the Council'.

What began as a US-style Freedom of Information Act to grant widespread public access to all documents except where public safety, monetary stability, privacy, the EU's foreign policy, commercial and industrial secrets were involved, was overturned by objections from Britain and Germany. Instead, a sweeping catch-all provision was inserted allowing the EU to refuse requests for information that are deemed 'contrary to the efficiency and good order of the institution'.

The Dutch government, alone in the EU, provides its parliament with copies of confidential documents so that debates can take place before decisions are taken by the EU. This is in sharp contrast to Westminster and other EU parliaments where the general rule is that confidential Council documents are never made available to parliamentarians.