EU: Court hits at Brussels secrecy

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

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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