Spotlight Europe: fighting legislative battles for animals, never losing heart
When the International Fund for Animal Welfare first requested access to some European Commission documents little did we imagine that after 10 years, and several court cases we would still be waiting for one key document.
IFAW’s original application was filed on 17th December 2001; just two weeks after new legislation came into force allowing public access to European Parliament, Commission and Council documents. The Commission eventually responded to our request with the news that the German government said “no” to the disclosure of any documents which had originally come from Germany, so the Commission was withholding these.
The documents we had requested all related to a site on the Elbe near Hamburg earmarked for protection by the European Union but which the Hamburg authorities wanted to develop for the assembly of the new giant airplane from Airbus.
The German government was asking the Commission to override the protection status of this site, important for migrating birds and other species. By August 2002, with none of these key documents forthcoming, IFAW applied to the European court in Luxembourg to overturn the Commission’s decision, which seemed to contradict the purpose of this new legislation allowing public access.
Member States were being given an arbitrary right of veto over documents held in Brussels without having to justify it. IFAW lost that case but we didn’t lose heart.
The governments of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, all champions of transparency and openness, had supported our efforts in court and so Sweden decided to appeal the court’s judgement on IFAW’s behalf.
So six years after the original application, Sweden won the IFAW case. That should have been the end of this story for IFAW. We now expected to have the documents.
Our terrier-like legal representative, who fought this long battle as a point of principle, re-filed our request, which we assumed was now just a formality.
However one key communication was still withheld, a letter at the highest level from the German government to the then head of the Commission, shortly before the Commission did a U-turn, permitting the development of the site for the final Airbus fitting.
This was becoming like chasing the Holy Grail.
IFAW applied to the European court again to allow us to have the magic missive without success and this case is now on appeal. Thanks to the persistence and support of our lawyer, IFAW has been able to pursue this to the bitter end.
And now a decade on, the EU Regulation on access to documents is itself under threat from a Commission proposal, which would further restrict access to certain documents, including those coming from member states.
IFAW is supporting a coalition of NGOs asking the European Parliament to ensure that the regulation, and hence democracy, is strengthened not undermined.
Yesterday the parliament endorsed a report by Michael Cashman MEP which would improve transparency, but the Member States are unlikely to agree.
This tug of war over EU documents looks set to continue. Let us hope it doesn’t take another 10 years before we have real openness and accountability in EU decision-making!