Access to information ironically is subject to a myriad of rules and regulations at the EU level: some of a general nature (particularly: Regulation 1049/2001), some lex specialis (such as Directive 2003/35 and Regulation 1367/2006), but with a complex relationship between lex generalis and lex specialis. Add to the mix in the environmental field, public international law in the form of the Aarhus Convention and, well, what you get is an awful lot of regulatory intransparency. Leonie and I have made an attempt succinctly to summarise same in Chapter 5 of our Handbook on EU environmental law.
In C‑57/16 P Client Earth v EC, the CJEU’s Grand Chamber set aside a General Court judgment which had earlier sided largely with the EC viz two requests of information: the first of those requests sought access to the impact assessment report drawn up by the Commission on the implementation of the ‘access to justice’ pillar of the Aarhus Convention, while the second sought access to the impact assessment carried out by the Commission on the revision of the EU legal framework on environmental inspections and surveillance at national and EU level. Both were refused on the ground for exception provided in Regulation 1049/2001, that ‘access to a document, drawn up by an institution for internal use or received by an institution, which relates to a matter where the decision has not been taken by the institution, shall be refused if disclosure of the document would seriously undermine the institution’s decision-making process, unless there is an overriding public interest in disclosure.’
The Grand Chamber essentially held that access should be granted: core of its reasoning is at para 92: ‘Although the submission of a legislative proposal by the Commission is, at the impact assessment stage, uncertain, the disclosure of those documents is likely to increase the transparency and openness of the legislative process as a whole, in particular the preparatory steps of that process, and, thus, to enhance the democratic nature of the European Union by enabling its citizens to scrutinise that information and to attempt to influence that process. As is asserted, in essence, by Client Earth, such a disclosure, at a time when the Commission’s decision-making process is still ongoing, enables citizens to understand the options envisaged and the choices made by that institution and, thus, to be aware of the considerations underlying the legislative action of the European Union. In addition, that disclosure puts those citizens in a position effectively to make their views known regarding those choices before those choices have been definitively adopted, so far as both the Commission’s decision to submit a legislative proposal and the content of that proposal, on which the legislative action of the European Union depends, are concerned.‘
Essentially: a true transparent policy process requires citisens to be able to impact the flow of the water before it disappears under the bridge.
EC Institutions continue to fight rearguard actions against transparency, which subsequently have to be addressed by the likes of Client Earth. The CJEU could not be clearer in highlighting the patch access to EU policy should continue to follow.
(Handbook of) EU Environmental Law, first ed.2017, Chapter 5. (With Leonie Reins).