MEPs condemn 'hastily drafted' rules on secrecy

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The Independent Online

MEPs yesterday rejected controversial secrecy rules created to help set up Europe's new military force, and demanded new and sweeping rights of access to European Union documents.

MEPs yesterday rejected controversial secrecy rules created to help set up Europe's new military force, and demanded new and sweeping rights of access to European Union documents.

The European Parliament's overwhelming vote for more openness will exacerbate a bitter dispute over secrecy and threatens a new constitutional clash with the EU's other main institutions.

Yesterday's document, drawn up by the Labour MEP Michael Cashman specifically attacked the regime, created hurriedly by the EU's Council of Ministers, for exchanging sensitive military information with Nato. Already three EU governments are backing unprecedented legal action to overturn them.

After winning the support of the parliament by 409 votes in favour to three against, Mr Cashman declared that MEPs had "sounded the death knell for this, and for other attempts to stitch up secrecy deals behind closed doors".

The battle over secrecy began during the summer when, in a move barely noticed at the time, the Council of Ministers amended its code of conduct to give military documents blanket exclusion from the code.

This means that information may be withheld on "public security, the security and defence of the Union or one of its member states, military or non-military crisis-management, international relations, monetary stability, court proceedings, inspections and investigations".

The measures particularly offend civil liberties groups because they permit no right to request documents, and therefore no appeal against refusal. Officials concede that they were drafted hurriedly, with Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, agreeing a deal on the exchange of documents with Lord Robertson, Nato's secretary general, as they discussed the EU's rapid-reaction military force. While Germany and France backed the Solana decision, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden are challenging it in the European Court.

Yesterday's report is part of a process designed to replace the code of conduct with formal rules required by the Amsterdam treaty, which will cover all the European institutions. These are due to be in place by May and the parliament will now begin complex negotiations with the Council of Ministers and the European Commission.

Mr Cashman's report amends proposals submitted by the Commission. Under his regime, all documents would be accessible with exceptions only on a case-by-case basis. Some MEPs wanted to go further and campaigners are concerned that Mr Cashman accepts the principle that civil servants should have "space to think", permitting officials to exchange unofficial but written documents which would be exempted from the rules.

Tony Bunyan, editor of Statewatch magazine, said: "Mr Cashman has produced a good report but it could have been a lot better if more emphasis had been placed on the rights of citizens rather than giving right to EU institutions."

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