Complaint against European Parliament over secret legal advice

September 23, 2013
By Ante

The European Parliament decided to keep the opinions of its legal service on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) secret. I just filed a complaint with the ombudsman against the parliament over this. I argue that the decisions to keep the documents secret were acts of maladministration and a violation of the human right to participate, enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICCPR).

ACTA is dead in Europe, this complaint is about access to documents – essential for civil society work.

In 2011 two parliamentary committees asked the parliament’s legal service an opinion on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The legal affairs committee decided to release the opinions to the public. The parliament’s vice-president responsible for access to documents overturned this decision. The FFII filed an access to documents request but received almost completely blacked out documents. (Blog post with image)

EU regulation 1049/2001 on access to documents

The EU’s regulation on access to documents has a set of exceptions to openness that have to be balanced with the public interest in disclosure. Examples are the protection of legal advice and the protection of the ongoing decision-making process. The parliament raised both exceptions. In my complaint I provide counter-arguments and an overriding public interest in disclosure.

But the regulation on access to documents also has a set of exceptions to openness – with a broad discretion for the institutions – that do not have to be balanced with the public interest in disclosure. An example is the protection of the public interest as regards international relations.

If publication of documents may undermine this interest, the institutions do not have to balance this interest with the public interest in disclosure. Just a minimal undermining of the public interest as regards international relations, and secrecy is allowed, however big the public interest in disclosure may be.

This is the reason that all requests for the ACTA negotiation documents failed (FFII, In ‘t Veld, EDRi). Also in this case the parliament raised this exception that has such a devastating effect on openness. To counter this, I use two approaches: brute force and human rights.

Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties

The parliament argued, based on Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), that the EU was under certain obligations concerning due and successful ratification of ACTA and that disclosure of the legal service’s opinions could undermine successful ratification in third countries, and thus harm the protection of the public interest as regards international relations.

In the complaint I argue that the parliament’s interpretation of the VCLT is not conform the VCLT text, the history of the VCLT or earlier interpretations of the VCLT. The Parliament erred in law. I conclude that disclosure of the legal service’s opinions is not in conflict with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties or ACTA’s final provisions.

There were of course no certain obligations concerning due and successful ratification – the parliament itself rejected ACTA later on. This is the complaint’s core argument.

Human rights

In addition I argue that EU regulation 1049/2001 on access to documents has to be interpreted in a way that is compatible with the EU’s human rights obligations. I argue that the right to participate is a human right, enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. Limitations on the human right to participate are possible, but they have to be necessary in a democratic society and proportionate. Regulation 1049/2001 may give the institutions a broad discretion, the ICCPR and ICESCR have a stricter test. The parliament’s decisions fail this stricter test.

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