This year marks the 20th anniversary of the coming into force of the EU ‘transparency law’ (officially, Regulation 1049/2001), a move which gave concrete expression to the right of public access to EU documents and significantly increased the accountability of the EU administration.
Two decades on and the practice of requesting public access to documents is now well established, used by investigative media, by interest groups and civil society activists, by businesses both big and small, and, not least, by citizens themselves.
As European Ombudsman, I serve as a redress mechanism for those denied access to EU documents, enabling me to see first-hand the benefits but also the shortcomings of the regulation.
One such shortcoming is that this cornerstone of EU transparency comes from a radically different era, predating many modern communications tools, such as smartphones and instant messaging, and the emergence of big data.
The law therefore needs to match today’s reality while maintaining its core strengths. It also needs to align more closely with the citizen rights enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, encourage greater proactive transparency and take account of important transparency case law.
This is an issue of good governance. It is about keeping public institutions accountable throughout the entire chain of EU decision making. Whether it is about vaccines procurement, the EU recovery funds or legislative decision making in the Council, this transparency law is crucial for European citizens’ rights.
Time for a makeover?
So what needs revision? Unlike the practice in some member states, the EU guarantees the right of access to “documents”, not “information” and this is a critical distinction. If no document about an issue exists, information is denied.
My inquiries show that the institutions struggle to adapt their recording and disclosure obligations to the realities of modern communication tools, as they become increasingly used throughout the administration.
It may therefore be time for the EU legislators to give this aspect of Regulation 1049/2001 a makeover. In the meantime, I have launched an initiative to map the practices in the EU administration concerning the recording of instant messaging as used for professional purposes.
The EU Courts continue to encourage greater transparency by the EU institutions, particularly in relation to documents concerning law making. This is not just in the public interest, but it is also in the interest of the institutions themselves, strengthening the legitimacy of the EU legislative process.
As ombudsman, I have emphasised this issue in recent years, and have been supported by the European Parliament, by many national parliaments and by civil society groups. It remains a work in progress.
In one important case, the court found that the Council of the EU should have recorded proposed amendments to legislation by member state delegations in the context of council legislative negotiations.
Greater transparency in this area would, I believe, help to tackle the ‘blame Brussels’ culture allowing more citizens to realise that it is their own governments who decide legislation in Brussels and not some ‘faceless bureaucracy’.
Speeding up access requests
At a technical level, the two-step procedure set out in law for requesting access to documents, combined with the timelines involved, can be cumbersome and slow, taking at times months to process.
My office has sped up our own work on access to document complaints, introducing a ‘fast-track procedure’ in 2018. The average time to complete a case is now one third of what it previously was.
Despite this, it is clear that many of those seeking access to documents face delays that undermine their ability to use the documents they want to consult. Access delayed is access denied, and the EU institutions should be more sensitive to this experience of citizens.
Where individuals seeking access to documents are frustrated in their efforts, they may turn to the court, but this can be time consuming and prohibitively costly. The European Ombudsman is therefore a more accessible redress mechanism for citizens.
My office has the power to inspect the documents at issue. Where I find an institution was not justified in withholding access, I may make a solution proposal during an inquiry, encouraging the institution swiftly to resolve the matter by disclosing, partially or fully, the documents requested.
When an institution insists on withholding access, I can make a formal finding of maladministration and a recommendation that the institution disclose the documents.
While compliance with my recommendations is high, there are cases where some institutions or agencies have not responded positively.
Ultimately, the institution itself remains the gatekeeper of documents it holds. In some member states, the independent and accessible ‘information commissioner’ bodies work well, and this is something on which EU legislators may wish to reflect.
Regulation 1049/2001 has been a very positive development in EU transparency and ultimately accountability but 20 years on, it is worth reflecting on how it can be improved and future-proofed.
Modern communication and working methods, the timeline for accessing documents and strengthening redress are all things that could serve further to improve this vital tool for ensuring the accountability of the EU institutions.
Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion
Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.
“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.
Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.
On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.
A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.
The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.
After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.
Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.
Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.
Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.
While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.
“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.
The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.
According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.
Italy welcoming back EU tourists from February
Italy will remove all Covid-linked restrictions on international visitors from the EU from 1 February, except the requirement to carry a “Green Pass” – a certificate of vaccination, negative test result, or immunity through having had the virus. Roberto Speranza, the health minister, also gave Italians the go-ahead to travel once again to Cuba, Singapore, Turkey, Thailand (the island of Phuket), Oman, and French Polynesia, Reuters reports.
Polish state has ‘blood on its hands’ after death of woman refused an abortion | Abortion
The family of a Polish woman who died on Tuesday after doctors refused to perform an abortion when the foetus’s heart stopped beating have accused the government of having “blood on their hands”.
The woman, identified only as Agnieszka T, was said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she was admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa on 21 December. Her death comes a year after Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
According to a statement released by relatives, the 37-year-old was experiencing pain when she arrived at the hospital but was “fully conscious and in good physical shape”.
The first foetus died in the womb on 23 December, but doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation, and Agnieszka’s family claim “her state quickly deteriorated”. The hospital waited until the heartbeat of the second twin also stopped a week later, and then waited a further two days before terminating the pregnancy on 31 December.
Agnieszka died on 25 January after weeks of deteriorating health. Her family suspect that she died as a result of septic shock, but the hospital did not identify the cause of her death in statement issued on Wednesday.
“This is proof of the fact that the current government has blood on their hands,” the woman’s family said in a statement on Facebook. The family also uploaded distressing footage of Agnieszka in poor health shortly before she died.
After the termination of the pregnancy a priest was summoned by the hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, Agnieszka’s family said.
Her death follows that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was denied an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined.
Agnieszka’s family claim that contact with the hospital was very poor and that the hospital refused to share the results of Agnieszka’s medical tests citing confidentiality guidelines. They say the doctors “insinuated” that Agnieszka’s rapidly deteriorating state could be caused by BSE, commonly known as “mad cow disease”, or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) and suggested she ate raw meat. The hospital did not reference this claim in their statement.
According to the statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. It is not clear whether an autopsy has been ordered.
Agnieszka is survived by her husband and three children.
The Guardian has contacted the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital for comment.
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