Civil society

Guide on exercising your access to documents rights in the EU

Image AIE Guide on access Earlier this year, the Madrid-based transparency advocacy organisation Access Info Europe released a manual for those seeking access to European Union documents.

The Guide on Access EU Documents is particularly aimed at citizens and civil society, but also at academics and journalists. By explaining the administrative procedure underlying Regulation 1049/2001 (the EU’s law on access to documents) step by step, AIE seeks to “demystify” an opaque procedure which “remains underused by the population at large”.

The 53-page long guide, which can be accessed here, describes the access to documents procedure in manageable chunks. First, it explains the Regulation’s guiding rationale. Second, it describes the application procedure in steps. Third, it describes the absolute and relative exception grounds to the access right, which in the Regulation are parked under article 4. Fourth, the guide takes the reader through the confirmatory request procedure. At the end of the report, a number of practical details are provided concerning access to documents in the special area of environmental policy, and the available registers in which EU documents are located.

While the guide will tell the experienced researcher little to nothing new, it does a good job at providing a succinct overview of access to documents in the EU. It is true that for this purpose, we already had Transparency in EU Institutional Law: A Practitioner’s Handbook, an accurate and equally to-the-point guide written in 2008 by Council legal advisor Bart Driessen. However, due the pragmatic, user-oriented chapter division, as well as AIE’s relatively high visibility as one of the champions of EU transparency rights, this guide is likely to reach a wider audience, for example among the Brussels-based NGO community.

The two guides differ subtly on the meaning and function of transparency. Driessen in this respect cites the Court of First Instance’s judgment in the Kuijer II case to describe its essence: “to secure a more significant role for citizens in the decision-making process and to ensure that the administration acts with greater propriety, efficiency and responsibility vis-à-vis the citizens in a democratic system” (T-211/00 para 52, p. 5 of the book). This is a somewhat lighter interpretation than that of Access Info Europe, which speaks of an all-out “fundamental human right of access to documents” (p. 6).

However, many users in daily life might not much care for such intracies. As an applicant was once recorded saying: “I don’t care what you call it [the law], just give me the damn documents.”