Brussels is slowly coming to life and waking up after the summer break. In truth, though, perhaps it never really went to sleep. It’s been a long and exhausting “break”, with all manner of stories jostling for headline-space in the European media – from the crisis in the Eurozone to revolutions and civil wars in North Africa. One particular headline that was perhaps unjustly squeezed from front-pages, however, concerns the question of transparency in the European Parliament.
Back in June, Jon Worth and Jason O’Mahoney highlighted the fact that the Parliament had just lost a case at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on whether or not it should release an internal report on possible abuses of the Parliament’s expenses system (you can now read the full report here in PDF form).
Diana Wallis MEP (UK Liberal Democrats), on behalf of the European Parliament Bureau of Presidents, had originally argued against the publication of the report on the grounds that it could disrupt the delicate job of reform:
“The use Members make of the allowances available to them is a sensitive matter followed with great interest by the media. Elements of the report could be used to derail the debate on the reform of the system and compromise rapid reform. Therefore, disclosure of the Report would, at present, seriously undermine the decision-making of the European Parliament”.
We took this statement to Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International, and he was pretty robust in his response:
I think this is an absolutely crazy statement, and would fit very well into a cabaret routine. It’s like a thief telling you: if you catch me now it makes it very difficult for me to steal! … It is neither a technically nor a politically sensible statement.
Is it really not a sensible position, though? Aren’t there valid reasons not to release information – such as when negotiations could be disrupted? The case of international diplomacy is perhaps a good one, where privacy and secrecy are important to the functioning of negotiations. Or what about when there are interests of national security?
One has to distinguish things that hurt security interests – so there may be certain things that one has to explicitly declare as confidential. Therefore one has to respect the idea of confidentiality in certain situations, sure. Generally, however, the more sunlight shining into institutions the better.
We should point out that this interview took place before Wikileaks dumped its entire store of unredacted diplomatic cables onto the internet. However, we did get the chance to ask Peter Eigen what he thought about Wikileaks in general:
Generally, I support Wikileaks. One should get as much information out into the public as possible. But if there are matters of life or death, then the people who generate this information have the responsibility to ensure it is not circulated to tens of thousands of people. The responsibility then, falls on the authorities, rather than on Wikileaks.
National security, then, is the job of the authorities. If the information is leaked to an organisation like Wikileaks, then it is already too late and responsibility must lie with those that are tasked with guarding that information.
What do you think? Do certain procedures require secrecy – such as diplomacy or institutional reform? Especially when more than one national interest is involved? Or is full transparency the only solution? Let us know in the form below and we’ll take your ideas to experts and policy-makers for comment.