(CN) – The Fourth Estate lost a court battle Tuesday to learn what allowances members of European Parliament get for travel, subsistence and parliamentary assistance.
Along with media groups from the Czech Republic and Latvia, 23 journalists from across the EU brought separate lawsuits in Luxembourg when Parliament refused the requests that they had filed in 2015.
Consolidating these challenges for review, the European General Court found Tuesday that access was properly denied on the basis of privacy.
Using an abbreviation for member of Parliament, the ruling emphasizes that the documents at issue “necessarily identify every MEP concerned, if only for the purposes of payment of those allowances.”
The journalists argued that the MEPs are in the public sphere, but this point held little sway with the court.
“The classification of the data at issue as personal data cannot be ruled out merely because those data are related to other data which are public, which is the case irrespective of whether disclosure of those data would undermine the legitimate interests of the persons concerned,” the ruling states.
It might have been possible to override privacy concerns by showing access is necessary, but on this point the court said the journalists failed as well.
Describing their various objectives in requesting the data, the journalists spoke “on the one hand, to enable the public to verify the appropriateness of the expenses incurred by MEPs in the exercise of their mandate and, on the other, to guarantee the public right to information and transparency,” according to the ruling.
These objectives struck the court as “excessively broad and general.”
“As regards the first objective raised by the applicants, they do not show how the transfer of personal data at issue is necessary to ensure an adequate review of the expenditure incurred by MEPs to fulfill their mandate, in particular to remedy the alleged inadequacies of existing mechanisms for the review of that expenditure,” the ruling states.
The journalists referred as well to “many instances of fraud committed by the MEPs, confirmed or alleged in past years,” according to the ruling, but the court found that reference “particularly abstract and general in nature.”
“In any event,” the ruling continues, “it must be noted that the applicants cite only the example of one Bulgarian MEP.
“However, that example cannot suffice to justify the transfer of the personal data of all MEPs.”
As for “suspicions of fictitious employment in connection with MEPs,” the court said the journalists failed to put this evidence to the Parliament in making their request.
Finally the court rejected the journalists’ claim that the public’s right to information concerning the conduct of MEPs in the exercise of their duties justified the intrusion on their personal data.
“The applicants … have not submitted … any express and legitimate reasons proving that the transfer of personal data at issue was the most appropriate of the possible measures, including the use of data and documents publicly available, in order to achieve the objective they pursued and that it was proportionate to that objective,” the ruling states.
Redacting identifying information from the records at issue would not be possible either, the court found.
“During the hearing, the Parliament stated that there were, without being contradicted on that point by the applicants, an average of 5,500 pages per MEP during the relevant periods, namely 33,000 pages for the six Cypriot members, more than 500,000 pages for the 96 German members and more than 4 million documents for all requests,” the ruling states.
“Thus, all the documents requested were clearly extremely voluminous, which also constituted a fact justifying the refusal of partial access to those documents.”