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EU: Court hits at Brussels secrecy

by Andy BoundsFinancial Times
November 8th, 2007

The European Union's secretive decision-making processes were condemned on Thursday in a legal judgment that should lead to more light being shed on how thousands of regulations affecting businesses are hatched.

The European Court of First Instance, the second-highest court, ruled that it was wrong for the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, to refuse to name lobbyists attending meetings unless they gave permission.

Brussels had argued that when it released documents it should blank out names under data protection rules to protect privacy.

However, the judges said: "The court takes the view that the mere participation of a representative of a collective body in a meeting held with a community institution does not fall within the sphere of that person's private life."

The legal victory was too late to aid Bavarian Lager, the complainant, but would assist other companies, lawyers said.

Bavarian Lager was a German beer importer in Clitheroe, northern England, that found its products shut out of the UK market by laws requiring public houses to buy from certain breweries. It complained to the Commission and Brussels started legal proceedings against the UK. That led to a meeting with the brewing industry and British officials from which Bavarian Lager was excluded.

Soon afterwards the UK changed its law and the case was dropped. Bavarian asked for the minutes of the meeting to see which of its rivals attended but the Commission blanked out the names.

Matthew Readings, antitrust partner at Shearman & Sterling in London and the lead advocate in the case, commented: "The court's decision has important implications for transparency efforts generally. Those seeking to influence the Commission must now understand, more than ever, that their identity and lobbying activities may be made public by the Commission - notwithstanding the data protection rules."

James Webber, who also worked on the case, said it was another blow to the Commission's culture of secrecy.

The court said that "exceptions to the principle of access to documents must be interpreted restrictively," implying that the Commission too often hid behind data protection to block freedom of information requests.

"We are examining the judgment carefully," a Commission spokesman said. It is likely to wait for the results of two impending cases is similar areas. It is reviewing the use of the 2001 law that allowed citizens to apply for documents.

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