No Democracy in the European Union Without Transparency

The EU’s accession to the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents would help strengthen transparency’s supportive role of transparency, guest blogger dr. Miguel Angel Blanes Climent argues.

 

Citizens do not ask the government for measures against corruption or lack of transparency. There are enough. We just want them to be enforced. There is no use in having the most advanced and ambitious standards against corruption and transparency then if they are not implemented or if the means to exercise them do not work because they are desperately slow due to the lack of funds or they are very expensive in terms of time and costs.

We are still missing the most important thing, a sincere political will to be transparent. And this attitude does not always exist. Of course, without the constant pressure of citizenship, the current attitude of authorities, officials or entities managing public funds will never change.

The challenge is served. Citizens should be aware of the importance for their daily lives and the benefits they can obtain if they demand transparency to entities managing public funds: corruption will be reduced and the waste of our money will be avoided.

In other words, it would be possible to have more and better public services with fewer taxes. Democracy does not consist in just voting every four years, but in participating in the management of public money every day of the year.

The main feature of transparency is its close and indissoluble link with the essence of democracy. Transparency is essential when talking about rule of law, since it makes it possible to control and render accounts at all levels of governance. Uncontrolled democracy is not democracy.

 

Citizens do not ask the government for measures against corruption or lack of transparency. There are enough. We just want them to be enforced.

 

The “right to transparency” is part of the third generation of human rights, and includes, in turn, the following rights:

a) The right to know: citizens have the right to know what happens inside the government that is at their service.

b) The right to control: when the actions of the authorities are known, it is possible to control the legality and timeliness of the decisions taken, it is also likely to know how public funds are used and what is their fate.

c) The right of citizens to be actors and not just spectators of political life.

 

The main feature of transparency is its close and indissoluble link with the essence of democracy.

 

Currently, there is no problem in publishing information that citizens need in order to pay taxes or comply with their duties. However, it is more difficult to get economic data that enables people to find the actual destination of the revenue from taxes. In this way public attention and the publication of waste and corruption are avoided.

Access to sensitive information, such as the final cost of administrative contracts, the use or destination of public funds, subsidies granted, cost of salaries, allowances and travel of our political representatives or administrative authorities the funding of political parties, trade unions and employers’ organizations, or waiting lists -health, housing, job, etc, has very few doses of transparency.

Another perfect “excuse” used to prevent the transparency of the actions of the authorities is the frequently invoked need to protect personal data. Actually, the right to privacy of individuals is being used too often as a perfect shield to transmute the open democracy in an opaque, dark democracy.

Measures against corruption and transparency are not enough. It is necessary that every single public funded institution change its way of being and acting. This is linked with the degree of democratic culture of a country. The “culture of transparency” must undertake a daily and tirelessly fighting his eternal enemy, the “culture of secrecy and opacity”. This is not about winning an isolated battle, but to win the war.

 

The right to privacy of individuals is being used too often as a perfect shield to transmute the open democracy in an opaque, dark democracy.

 

Access to public information should be enhanced by the EU. At EU level there is no general law on administrative procedures to determine clearly the rights of European citizens in their relations with institutions and bodies. For those rights, including the access to passive and active information, we must analyze the rules of procedures of each community organization if introduced specialties, which is a situation that is far from satisfactory.

Moreover, the importance of the right to know of citizens justifies that, in the same way that happened with regard to the protection of personal data, the EU approved a directive to ensure minimum conditions of access to information regardless of the Member State who is requested. The EU competence titles would be, on the one hand, the internal market and the free flow of information held by the Member States, on the other hand, the protection of fundamental rights of the individual.

On the other hand, the Treaty of Lisbon provides for the EU to accede, as a Union, to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It forms the legal basis for this accession, which is simplified by the new, single legal personality of the European Union. This accession will enable the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to verify the compliance of EU acts with the ECHR, which will also serve to enhance the protection of fundamental rights within the European Union.

 

Transparency is like sincerity; demanded of others but less of one’s self.

 

The European Court of Human Rights has recently stated that the right of access to public information is included within the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR. Considering the importance in a pluralistic, democratic society of transparency of public authorities, the European Union should accede to the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents for the following reasons:

I) provides a source of information for the public;

II) helps the public to form an opinion on the state of society and on public authorities;

III) fosters the integrity, efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of public authorities, so helping affirm their legitimacy.

If the institutions of the European Union and the Member States themselves are increasingly transparent, increase public trust and democratic legitimacy and the European project will be strengthened.

Can you trust someone if you do not know what it does and how it does?

Transparency is like sincerity; demanded of others but less of one’s self.

Dr. Miguel Angel Blanes Climent is lawyer of the Council of Alicante and legal adviser to the Ombudsman of Valencia. Recently, he authored a book entitled Information Transparency of Public Administration: The Right of the People to Know and the Duty to Disseminate Public Information Actively (in Spanish – see more here)

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