Liisa Leppävirta: “The future of the EU is at stake” – How to improve transparency in the European Union?
Promoting openness and transparency in the European Union has been a crucial issue for Finland throughout its EU membership. When joining the EU, Finland submitted a declaration to the Accession Treaty stating that as a member of the EU it would continue to apply the principle of open government, including public access to official records, inherent to its national administrative culture. This principle has guided Finland’s actions in the EU for more than 20 years now.
Finnish Presidencies as promoters of transparency
Greater transparency was also held up as a key objective by Finland’s previous Council presidencies. Finland has tended to approach the issue from a broad perspective. In 1999, advancing the negotiations on the EU Transparency Regulation was a topical issue. The transparency measures of the 2006 Finnish Presidency, in turn, focused on online public access to the legislative sessions of the Council of Ministers. Finland’s ongoing Presidency is carrying on this work along the same lines.
“It is not the Presidency that makes the agenda – it is the agenda that makes the Presidency” goes a common saying in EU circles. In the field of transparency, too, the actions of Finland’s 2019 Presidency were determined by ongoing discussions on topical issues. They have dealt with the extension of the Transparency Register, also known as the EU Lobbyist Register, and with increased transparency in legislative matters. The current Finnish Presidency is seeking to promote both initiatives.
Work to increase the transparency of discussions within the Council will be taken forward by extending public access to discussions on non-legislative as well as legislative matters. Finland is the first presidency to incorporate the new EU strategic agenda for 2019–2024 into the work of the Council. In this context, the various configurations of the Council will discuss ways to enhance EU action in different sectors. These discussions, in particular, can be followed by webcast.
Reflecting on the future of transparency
Coinciding with a transition period for the EU institutions, Finland’s current Presidency is also a timely occasion for a debate exploring the future of the EU. Ahead of the Presidency, the Ministry of Justice and the University of Helsinki held a workshop to take stock of topical EU issues and to anticipate topics that could come up or should be raised during the upcoming Presidency. As an outcome of the workshop, the University of Helsinki and Finland’s Presidency decided to jointly organise a seminar on the future of EU transparency in Brussels in September 2019.
The seminar brought together a full house of interested parties: representatives from member states, EU institutions and civil society, as well as academics and journalists.
The first panel discussion of the day focused on transparency as a guarantor of EU democracy. One of the panellists, an attorney who has pursued a large number of claims before the European Court of Justice relating to the regulation of access to documents held by the EU, explained why she felt that transparency within the EU is so important that she does her best to fit transparency cases into her busy schedule.
Later on, representatives of the EU institutions and civil society actors took the floor, delving in more detail into aspects related to access to documents. Their comments and remarks showed the central importance of striking a balance between the institution’s need to work efficiently and the transparency that makes citizen participation possible. The coffee break was taken up by intense discussions combined with a re-reading of the articles of the Transparency Regulation, which regulates access to documents held by EU institutions. It was evident that whenever lawyers sharing a common interest gather in sufficient numbers, their discussions are liable to result in intense legal quibbling.
In the end, the representative of the European Ombudsman reminded the audience what is ultimately at stake: the future of the EU. It is a positive sign that citizens and NGOs are curious about the functioning of the EU, because it shows that people are concerned about the EU. Not all information should be public, but a sufficient amount of information must be available to support the democratic legitimacy of EU decision-making and to enable participation.
It has been several years since the last – unsuccessful – negotiations on reform of the EU Transparency Regulation. Since then, we have hardly had any broad-based debates on the future of EU transparency. This seminar, however, provided a suitable platform for such a debate. During the breaks, someone actually remarked that this was the first event for a long time to have brought together all the “transparency nerds” for an exchange of ideas.
Fittingly to the topic of the seminar, the debate on the future of transparency in the EU was conducted as inclusively and as openly as possible. In case you missed the event, the webcast recording is available on the Council’s website.