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EC promises greater access to information: Even as a non-secrecy pledge is given, Brussels bureaucrats apply old-style censorship to a press release

THE Commission of the European Community this week committed itself to more openness, greater transparency on mergers, and better information for consumers.

It was unfortunate that on the same day the EC's executive bureaucracy sent out a press release from which parts had been censored. Despite a year of upsets with the public rapidly losing confidence in the EC, it seems that old habits die hard. 'Deleted on grounds of confidentiality' was the phrase used twice in the document which dealt with revision of merger regulations. The document concludes that the Commission wants 'to make its procedures and decisions more transparent'.

But not that transparent, it seems.

The Commission also on Wednesday approved a new set of procedures to ensure that policy initiatives are properly publicised and that public opinion is monitored more closely. This is part of the Commission's response to declining public support and to widespread criticism that it is too secretive. Policy will be co- ordinated by a new Information Strategy Group, which will include Joao de Deus Pinheiro, the Communications Commissioner who drew up the new procedures.

The Commission also examined revisions to its merger policy that should make them more open to public scrutiny. At the moment, decisions are frequently shrouded in secrecy and it is often far from clear to outsiders how they have been reached.

A study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research earlier this year said there was a real danger that large corporations would effectively 'capture' the regulatory process and turn it to their own ends. It added that the lack of transparency made it hard to judge how fair decisions were.

The new proposals make things better, allowing for greater disclosure of information. But they do not go as far as some outside experts have advised, by making the EC's merger task force more independent, for instance.

The Commission also approved a three-year action plan for consumer policy, intended to give consumers greater information on their rights. But BEUC, the body that represents EC consumer organisations, has criticised the action plan as too vague.

All this matters because there is growing evidence that people question whether the EC works for them. The Community's own opinion poll, Eurobarometer, shows that less than half the EC's citizens believe their countries benefit from membership. And a majority of citizens feel ill-informed about the Community in every country. The Commission is trying to prove that it is prepared to be more open, and it wants to demonstrate that it can do things that are of practical use, like consumer policy.

Its efforts have not been notably successful so far. A study by outside experts on communications policy earlier this year recommended manipulating the press to give a more favourable judgement. It led to the press walking out of a briefing on the subject and was quietly dropped.

A great deal of information does come out of the Commission: yesterday there were no fewer than 46 press releases of various kinds, dealing with Nepalese flood victims to the Belgian economy. But it is the quality of information that is at issue.