The allergy to accountability is flaring up yet again

Lisa & Ian Murray seamus at
Fri Aug 25 20:29:58 PDT 2000

Paris, Saturday, August 26, 2000 Political Uproar Expected Over New EU Secrecy Code By Barry James International Herald Tribune

PARIS - European Union governments have quietly adopted new secrecy rules that limit the public's right to know what EU officials are doing on a wide range of military and civilian matters. The rules, adopted in an unpublicized written procedure in Brussels while the European Parliament was on vacation, are likely to cause a political uproar when the Parliament returns next month, political observers said, particularly because Parliament is currently attempting to increase rather than decrease openness on EU matters.

The rules were adopted by European ambassadors to the EU in Brussels at the request of Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for foreign and security affairs. They impose the same kind of secrecy on various European matters as the military secrecy directives employed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where Mr. Solana was secretary-general until last year.

According to the new rules, information may be withheld from Europeans on a wide range of security issues, among them: ''public security, the security and defense of the Union or one of its member states, military or nonmilitary crisis management, international relations, monetary stability, court proceedings, inspections and investigations.''

The new rules are so restrictive that the fact that certain classified documents exist will not be revealed.

A spokesman at the European Council Secretariat, which is headed by Mr. Solana, declined to speculate on how much information would actually be concealed but said that the restrictions would probably be limited to operational details about EU military or nonmilitary engagements in places like the Balkans.

However, officials said that even low-level information would be classified if it concerned a non-EU country, and would be released only if that country's government gave written permission.

Tony Bunyan, of a civil rights monitoring group called Statewatch, said the secrecy rules would also apply to such issues as immigration and drugs. The officials responsible for policies will also be responsible for classifying them, he added.

The European ombudsman, Jacob Sodeman, who has campaigned for greater transparency in the EU, attacked the new secrecy code as unnecessary, saying it was a mistake to bracket together military and nonmilitary issues. In an interview this month with the newspaper Aamulehti in Tampere, Finland, he said that Mr. Solana's appointment had been a ''serious mistake.''

Under a code of practice adopted in 1993, citizens of EU countries have been able to request any EU document, and EU institutions were obliged to justify refusals on a case-by-case basis. This has now been amended.

Last year, the EU received 6,700 requests for documents, mostly from lawyers, academics and journalists, and refused access on about 900 occasions, many of which resulted in appeals to the ombudsman.

In response to the new rules, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands issued a joint statement this month saying they believed that documents could be kept confidential without depriving citizens of the right to know what material is available.

Hans Verploeg, general-secretary of the Netherlands Association of Journalists, described the adoption of the new secrecy code as a ''military coup - so clever in the middle of summertime.'' He pointed out that the new rules in Brussels contrasted with the situation in his country, which has a U.S.-style Freedom of Information act.

So far as confidential EU information is concerned, he said, the Netherlands, which boasts an open style of government like the Nordic countries, will now have to conform to the more closed standards of the rest of Europe.

The new rules were a particular blow for Finland, which at the Helsinki summit meeting in December obtained the agreement of other countries to a public register of documents, including restricted information.

All top-secret, secret and confidential EU documents will now be excluded from public records, along with any other material mentioning the existence of restricted documents.

''Just imagine we were putting together a strategy for an EU defense against an attack by Libya,'' said an official at the EU Council Secretariat headed by Mr. Solana.

''You wouldn't want people even to know you were dealing with that kind of information,'' the official said. ''And you can imagine hundreds of situations like that.''

EU sources said that Mr. Solana was seriously concerned about the level of security at the council secretariat in Brussels, which was not designed with the EU's embryonic military and security role in mind.

The sources said Mr. Solana realized that he would never gain the cooperation of other partners such as the United States or NATO, unless the EU's security was at least as good as theirs.

Under the rules in the Nordic countries, similar to those being proposed in Parliament for the EU as a whole, citizens at least know what documents are available and can go to court to appeal for their release. People like Heidi Hautala, a member of the Greens Party, have used that law in Finland to pry open details about the trade in weapons.

As a member of the Legal Affairs committee at Parliament, Ms. Hautala has participated in the negotiations to increase openness in the EU. She said the council had given no warning that it intended to change the rules and asserted in an interview that Mr. Solana had carried out ''a well-planned act of bad faith after everyone had left Brussels.''

''This tendency is leaning toward more and more secrecy in all fields of security, even where there is nothing to hide,'' she added.

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