EU Shouldn't Have Kept Talks With UK a Secret

     (CN) - A watchdog of EU government condemned the nondisclosure of documents that shed light on the United Kingdom's resistance to a basic rights treaty.
     The European Ombudsman's decision comes after five years of wrangling with the European Commission over an information request by European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), a nonprofit civil liberties organization. The Brussels-based group filed its initial application in 2007 while investigating whether U.K. citizens enjoyed fewer fundamental rights as compared with their EU counterparts.
     The commission refused, however, to hand over five documents concerning the U.K.'s opt-out from portions of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, signed as the Treaty of Lisbon following tense multigovernment negotiations in 2007, EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros said in a statement.
     Specifically, British government officials feared the charter could help alter U.K. labor law, or cause strikes and work disruptions across England.
     In the end, both the U.K. and Poland secured opt-outs from Title IV of the charter, which covers economic and social rights, after Poland expressed concern that EU courts would force it to grant homosexual couples the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples. The opt-outs prevent domestic courts from finding that national law violates the EU constitution as it relates to Title IV issues.
     The European Commission provided only partial access to two documents, citing concerns about the legal advice it receives and its internal decision-making process. It also refused access to another three documents, claiming that their publication would reveal European negotiating strategy and undermine future efforts.
     The ombudsman found the commission's arguments unconvincing after reviewing the documents in question. And the commission continued to withhold the information even after a preliminary opinion that "openness in respect of access to documents relating to the adoption of EU legislation contributes to strengthening democracy by allowing citizens to follow in detail the decision-making process within the institutions taking part in legislative procedures."
     That drew a sharp rebuke from Diamandouros in his final decision.
     "Public access to documents concerning how EU law is adopted is key to winning the trust of European citizens," Diamandouros said. "I therefore strongly regret the Commission's refusal to give the public appropriate access to documents concerning how one of the most important EU laws, namely, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, was adopted."
     Such a breach would normally merit making a special report to the European Parliament, the ombudsman said.
     Since ECAS wishes to end the matter, however, Diamandouros closed the case with "a critical remark which reflects the seriousness of the issue."
     "The commission has breached the Charter of Fundamental Rights by wrongfully refusing to give public access to documents concerning the UK opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights," Diamandouros said. "The commission failed to give valid reasons for its refusal to give public access. By categorizing parts of the documents as irrelevant, the commission wrongly disregarded the complainant's request to obtain access to the full documents and thereby evaded the obligation to give valid reasons for refusing full access. In view of the importance of the documents concerned for the rights of EU citizens, and the fact that the commission failed to engage constructively with the detailed analysis put forward by the ombudsman, this constitutes a serious instance of maladministration."