[Interview] Transparency campaigner pledges to publish EU files

EU officials should expect a flood of new requests for internal documents in the wake of a pro-transparency court ruling.

Emilio de Capitani, a former European Parliament official turned campaigner, filed his first tranche of en-masse queries last week using the website, which is hosted by a Spanish NGO, he told EUobserver.

  • Emilio De Capitani worked in the EU Parliament until 2011 (Photo:

“The aim is to follow each one of the 185 legislative procedures currently pending, asking information on a day-by-day basis,” De Capitani said.

His freedom-of-information (FOIs) queries are designed to drag into the public eye details of how EU diplomats haggle over new laws in the EU Council’s 150 or so “working groups”.

He aims to keep filing wave after wave to gather enough data to make sense of how the EU-sausage machine really works. Including sensitive details of EU countries’ national positions in talks, while final decisions are still taking shape.

“I want to kick the hornets’ nest,” he said.

If he gets what he wants, De Capitani aims to upload the files on a rolling basis in a database that can be used by NGOs, media, and concerned citizens.

“It’ll take time, but I’m convinced of the need to do this,” he said.

Third time’s the charm

If the EU Council refuses to release documents, as before, citing the need to protect its decision-making process, De Capitani aims to drag the EU Council back into Europe’s top court in Luxembourg, he said.

“There’ll be a ‘De Capitani 3′,” he said, referring to two previous court victories in his years’ long battle against EU obfuscation.

The 75-year old Italian lawyer started firing off his first FOIs after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in favour of “greater openness” on 26 January.

“It should be recalled that in a system based on the principle of democratic legitimacy, the co-legislators [of the EU] must answer for their actions to the public,” the judges said.

De Capitani’s lawsuit was backed by the relatively transparency-friendly administrations in Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

And the EU Council “took note” of the ruling in statements to media at the time — a non-committal line, showing no indication if it will comply.

But for all the judges’ pro-democratic rhetoric, the ECJ verdict still gave EU officials discretion to “balance the particular interest to be protected by the non-disclosure of the document in question against the public interest in making the document available” when handling FOIs.

Opacity prevails

The EU Council doesn’t even publish the titles of its working (“WK” in EU jargon) documents, unless the — invisible — files are specifically asked for in FOIs.

In practice, this restricts access to dogged activists rather than the general public.

But the ‘De Capitani 2’ verdict last month also changed nothing about this practice.

And that meant EU institutions were likely to continue treating the ECJ like a paper tiger, De Capitani warned.

The Italian lawyer also won an EU court ruling in 2018 saying the EU Parliament should publish documents in MEPs’ so-called trilogue legislative talks with diplomats.

But almost five years later, the EU Parliament still does not do it, in what De Capitani called a “sad confirmation” of prevailing attitudes in Brussels.

De Capitani worked in the EU Parliament until 2011, before turning to academia and activism.

He helped create the parliament’s Legislative Observatory — a website designed to help EU citizens follow how laws are made — in 2009.

He also spearheaded calls for all EU laws and decisions to be published online in a digital Official Journal.

De Capitani is pulling together a petition by like-minded MEPs and NGOs, including Statewatch, Transparency International, and Access Info, to press for EU Parliament funds to create a more robust database of EU legislative paperwork for the long term.

His ultimate goal is full transparency and momentum is building for change, he said.

“In times of Qatargate, one can ask if playing negotiations behind closed doors is an efficient way of ‘protecting’ the co-legislator from external pressure,” De Capitani said, referring to the bribery scandal in the parliament which exploded last year.

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