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EU Court boost for Brussels transparency

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The European Court of First Instance on Thursday dealt a blow for better transparency in Brussels' decision-making, ruling against the European Commission's attempts to use EU data privacy protection rules to justify withholding the names of lobbyists with whom it is in touch.

The European Court of First Instance's judgement concerned a complaint by The Bavarian Lager Co. Ltd, a UK-based importer of German beer, which wanted to know who had been invited to a stakeholder meeting related to the Commission’s investigation of a possible violation of EU competition law.

The judgement annuls a decision of the Commission to reject an application for access to the full minutes of a stakeholders meeting organised by the Commission, including all names of the lobbyists present at that meeting.

The Commission justified the practice by saying that the disclosure of the names of the lobbyists would "undermine the protection of the privacy and the integrity of the individual".

However, the European Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, had already ruled in July this year against the Commission’s practice of blanking out of lobbyists’ names in documents released under EU access to document rules.

That complaint had been filed by Corporate Europe Observatory, an Amsterdam-based EU lobby watchdog group, which had noted that the Commission Trade Directorate-General, led by EU Commissioner eter Mandelson, had started blanking out the names of industry lobbyists in correspondence, minutes of meetings and other documents released under EU access to document rules. The Ombudsman rejected this practice as “maladministration”.

Following today's Court of First Instance's judgement, the Ombudsman is now expected to take action to ensure that the Commission releases the uncensored version of the requested DG Trade documents.

While the Commission could still appeal at the European Court of Justice, the judgement could have consequences reaching far beyond this particular case, as it will develop jurisprudence on the issue of data protection versus the public’s right to access to documents.

Corporate Europe Observatory has welcomed the Court's verdict, saying it supports a drive for increased transparency in EU decision-making. It considers the Commission's arguments as “an abuse of rules that were never intended for keeping names of business lobbyists away from public scrutiny”.

It also believes that the Court of First Instance's verdict will make it hard for lobbyists to justify not registering in the new EU lobbying disclosure database which EU Commissioner Siim Kallas will launch next spring as part of the European Transparency Initiative.

Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory said: "the Court of First Instance's judgement is very good news for all those (both inside and outside the institutions) who want to improve transparency in EU decision-making."

Judgement of the Court of First Instance in Case T-194/04
Bavarian Lager / Commission

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