Swedes scent victory in access to documents fight

Author (Person)
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Series Details Vol 7, No.16, 19.4.01, p1
Publication Date 19/04/2001
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Date: 19/04/01

By John Shelley

THE Swedish presidency is within a hair's breadth of clinching a landmark deal on giving the public wide-ranging rights to see internal EU papers.

In what would be the biggest victory yet for Swedish premier Göran Persson during his stint at the Union helm, diplomats and MEPs say they now have what should be a final version of new rules on access to documents.

EU citizens were promised legally-binding rules guaranteeing them the right to see Union papers in the Amsterdam Treaty, agreed in 1997.

It set a deadline for the end of this month for member states and the European Parliament to agree on the form rules would take - a target date that insiders have for months been saying was impossible to meet.

But in a surprise turnaround, following frantic diplomatic efforts from Sweden, a deal has been hammered out which could be formally agreed in the first week of May if it clears the final hurdle.

The drama began to unfold last week when Swedish ambassador Gunnar Lund presented what he hoped would be a final version of the rules to senior EU diplomats.

But that deal, jointly agreed with the Parliament, was shot down because of objections led by French ambassador Pierre Vimont.

Now, after frenetic last-minute phone calls between Lund and the head of the Parliament's negotiating team Graham Watson over Easter, both sides say they have reached a compromise.

The deal comes just in time for a meeting of the citizens' freedoms and rights committee next Tuesday (24 April) - the last chance for that body to approve a text if the EU wants to come near the 1 May deadline. At the meeting next week Watson, who chairs the committee, will be under enormous pressure to deliver the support he has promised from MEPs.

Hard-liners will protest that the Parliament's negotiating team has given too much away and will be buoyed by civil liberties groups such as Statewatch which have condemned the compromise as a "stitch-up", saying it will actually undermine some existing rights of access.

Other MEPs will argue the assembly should take what it can under the openness-friendly Swedish presidency.

"I think there's a bit better than a 50/50 chance that the committee will agree the deal," said Watson. "It's not perfect, but it gives us most of what we want."

If the committee approves the rules, they should be rubber-stamped by the full Parliament in May; if they do not, it will spell disaster for hopes of a deal in the near future.

"Then we would be set for a very long conciliation process which will take us into the Belgium presidency if not into the Spanish," said one diplomat.

The deal on the table is the result of a gruelling schedule of meetings over the past four months and a series of bitterly-fought compromises.

When negotiations first got under way MEPs were pushing for citizens to be granted very wide-ranging access rights, but several member states - notably France, Germany and Spain - feared giving away secrets. The current plans include provisions for the protection of "sensitive documents", those classified as secret, top-secret or restricted.

MEPs and the Swedes are pleased this will mean that all documents in principle come under the scope of the regulation, despite some member states pushing for whole categories of papers to be excluded.

Swedish foreign ministry ambassador Annicka Söder said: "Of course there are documents that will not be handed out, but at least now they can all be asked for."

There is less enthusiasm about the introduction of procedures to deal with the way requests to see papers are handled.

In a move that will be condemned by civil liberties groups, MEPs have agreed to sacrifice some of the public's right to see documents in return for a pledge that top parliamentarians will be given special access to secret papers.

The Swedish Presidency is within a hair's breadth of clinching a landmark deal on giving the public wide-ranging rights to see internal EU papers.

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