Corporate lobby groups exert tremendous influence over the European Union Commission, says lobby watchdog body Corporate Europe Observatory, but this is often kept away from the public eye. Are we seeing the same level of secrecy in the EU-Malaysia FTA talks?
Brussels, 15 February – Lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory is suing the European Commission in the EU’s General Court for withholding documents related to the EU’s free trade talks with India. The Commission is accused of discriminating in favour of corporate lobby groups and of violating the EU’s transparency rules.
The case concerns 17 documents, including meeting reports, emails and a letter, which the Commission sent to industry lobby groups including BusinessEurope but refused to release in full to Corporate Europe Observatory. The Commission claims that the censored information is sensitive as it concerns the EU’s priorities and strategies in the ongoing trade negotiations with India. The Commission argues that disclosing this information would undermine the EU’s international relations.
Corporate Europe Observatory trade campaigner Pia Eberhardt said: “If the Commission has already shared information with the business world at large, the same information cannot suddenly become confidential when a public interest group asks for it. This is a case of manifest discrimination and violates the EU’s access to information rules.”
Among the censored documents is a letter to BusinessEurope from former EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson in March 2008, from which comments on the EU and Indian negotiating positions have been deleted. In a handwritten note at the bottom, Mandelson had expressly invited BusinessEurope to discuss the letter with the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). As both BusinessEurope and the CII have thousands of members, the letter was effectively put on general release the moment it was sent out.
The lawsuit is a last resort for Corporate Europe Observatory after the Commission repeatedly refused to release the information about ongoing trade negotiations, following access to document requests.
Pia Eberhardt added: “The Commission must end its flawed practice of granting big business privileged access to EU trade policy-making, at the expense of wider public interest. Such discrimination leads to a trade policy which caters for big business needs, but which has devastating effects for people’s rights and the environment.”
In December, more than 200 civil society organisations from the EU and India called for an immediate halt to the EU-India free trade talks, which they fear will fuel poverty, inequality and environmental destruction. Negotiations are set to conclude by mid-2011.
Corporate Europe Observatory’s application will now be reviewed by the General Court and sent to the European Commission. The Commission has two months and ten days to reply, but can seek an extension. Once the written procedure is declared closed, the General Court will set a date for an oral hearing in Luxembourg.