EU to widen access to green information

Directive proposal to correct "shortcomings" in 1990 law by creating right to information

The ability of private citizens in the EU to demand environmental information from public authorities will be increased under a draft directive proposed by the European Commission today. Under the proposals, an EU right to environmental information will be created. In addition, the number of public bodies liable to provide information will be increased and the scope for refusing requests narrowed.

The new proposal has been put forward to remove "shortcomings" in the EU's 1990 directive on access to environmental information. It springs from one of environment commissioner Margot Wallström's fundamental beliefs - that better public information is a key to better enforcement of EU environmental laws.

The major change being proposed from existing rules is a move from mere "freedom" of information, as set out in the 1990 law, to a legally stronger "right" to information. If adopted by governments and the European Parliament, this will allow the EU to ratify the UN Århus convention on public access to information, participation and justice in environmental affairs. The convention was signed two years ago (ENDS Daily 25 June 1998) and the second post-signature conference of parties is currently being held in Croatia.

The Commission also proposes extending the disclosure rules to all public authorities that "directly or indirectly" affect the environment, such as transport and energy agencies. In some member states these bodies have been exempt from the law. The requirement will also be imposed on private utilities, such as energy providers, if they "carry out similar services to public authorities."

Authorities will have reduced scope for refusing information. As under current law, this will be allowed if disclosure involves the confidentiality of public authority proceedings, "legitimate" private economic interests, and public security or national defence. However, they will now have to show that disclosure has an "adverse effect" on these to justify refusal.

The Commission says the existing disclosure exemption rules has led to many abuses. Under the new directive, authorities will now have to weigh the public benefits of disclosure and non-disclosure and provide information if the public interest comes out stronger. Citizens will have the right to administrative and judicial review of decisions.

The directive will oblige member states to provide much more "active information" on "policies, plans and programmes" via the internet, and introduce regular "state of the environment" reports. The Commission is also proposing that authorities should reply to all information requests within one month. Although member states will still decide whether to charge for processing requests, the Commission says payment should not be required before the information is provided.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111. See also Commission press release IP/00/699 on Rapid. The text of the proposal and a report on the implementation of the 1990 directive will soon be published here.

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