Madrid, 11 March 2022 – On 10 March 2022, following the scandal about the Commission refusing access to President Ursula von der Leyen’s text messages, the European Parliament held a plenary session to discuss application of the EU’s access to documents rules, known as Regulation 1049/2001. Yet, the Commission President, much like her text message conversation with the CEO of Pfizer, was nowhere to be found. Rachel Hanna, Legal Researcher at Access Info reports.

The Commission’s decision to refuse an access to documents request regarding text messages exchanged between President Ursula von der Leyen and the CEO of Pfizer on the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines has been greeted with wide public backlash. In its response to this request, the Commission took the view that due to the short lived nature of text messages, and their apparent inability to hold “important information concerning matters relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission”, they do not “qualify as a document fulfilling the registration criteria” under the Commission’s record-keeping policy.

This decision was not only an unpopular one in the eyes of the European public, but the European Ombudsman has also labelled this decision as maladministration, and has given the Commission until 26 April to respond.

With the controversy that this decision has caused, MEPs, journalists, civil society, and the public were eagerly awaiting the chance to hold the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accountable for her lack of transparency in the European Parliament plenary on Transparency and administrative standards – the treatment of public access requests based on Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001.

Disappointingly, in place of the President, stood Vice-President Věra Jourová. Von der Leyen’s absence did not, however, go unnoticed, with Sophie in ‘t Veld from Renew Europe Group stating that the President should have been there to be held accountable, and her absence was a “contempt for democracy”.

In place of the President, Jourová affirmed that “transparency is one of the underlying principles of this Commission”, quoting statistics from 2020 where 81% of requests to the Commission were granted full or partial access at the initial stage, and wider or even full access was further granted in more than 37% of cases reviewed at confirmatory stage; “this proves that the Commission takes transparency very seriously.”

Yet, currently, the public interest does not lie in how many requests the Commission is receiving, but rather in its interpretation and application of the transparency rules. Many civil society organisations and journalists experienced in the EU access to documents regime have been calling for a review of Regulation 1049/2001 for years, stating that it is no longer fit for purpose in today’s information age. The European Ombudsman’s office held a survey in 2021 asking the public their experience in using Regulation 1049/2001. In a recent event, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly revealed that the common problems faced by users include significant delays, insubstantial arguments put forward by the institutions and agencies, recent case law not being taken into account, different experiences between institutions, and record management problems.

In the Plenary, Jourová referred to previous attempts to recast Regulation 1049/2001, which ended in EU legislative deadlock. She blamed the deadlock on the Council and Parliament saying, “the Commission does not see, for the moment, willingness from co-legislators to engage in a revision process on the basis of these proposals” yet the Commission remains “ready to support further legislative and political discussions.”

MEPs were quick to criticise, with Evin Incir, from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, stating that if the Commission were truly committed to transparency, there would be no need for this current plenary debate. She continued that the Commission needs to be open about all the decisions it takes, regardless whether this is done “via text message, via email or even pigeons!” She stated that now is the time to update the Union’s legislation on access to documents; “the current legislation is two decades old and needs a thorough makeover to provide citizens with their fundamental right.”

Sophie in ‘t Veld was highly critical of the practices of the Commission and the Council stating that despite having legislation in place, it is not implemented in practice; “the Commission and Council are not practising a culture of transparency. They go out of their way to avoid transparency” and that the Commission as the “guardian of the treaties” was deliberately and knowingly misinterpreting the transparency rules.

In response, Jourová stated that within the Commission “there is a high level of support for the maximum possible transparency, and we will work with the Parliament and the Council to do better because I agree with those of you who said there is a big space for improvement.”

In response to the text message controversy, Jourová said that it needed to be looked at alongside the real context of the situation. She defended the President by saying that she took risks and guaranteed early delivery of vaccines to the EU citizens. Addressing the MEPs, she stated that while they may not see the President as “a role model” for transparency, Jourová considers her as a role model for taking on serious responsibilities and acting fast in an efficient way.

In addressing the systemic issues of transparency, Jourová stated “you have said that the rules need to be modernised, I agree 100%”. She stated that the pandemic brought with it new and modern ways of communicating, the rules need to be updated to reflect this. She called on the deadlock around the previous recasts to be unblocked so that new rules could be prepared. In the case this is not possible for the institutions, she states that the Commission is determined to create new internal rules; “I don’t want to wait, I am really convinced that we have to modernise the rules and reflect the technological reality”.

It is quite obvious, from all sides, that there needs to be an update of Regulation 1049/2001. Since its adoption over 20 years ago, there have been major technological advances, ways of communicating have changed, and therefore so too has the way decisions are made. Regulation 1049/2001 has not been adapted to reflect these changes, making the current regime outdated and unfit for use in the 21st century. There is quite clearly a public interest in the update of the currently flawed EU access to documents system. This now needs to be matched with political will, from all institutions, to break the current legislative deadlock. Access Info is following this closely and continues to call for reform to bring the EU’s access to documents rules into line with the fundamental right in the EU treaties and in international standards.