There can be no democracy in the EU without transparency

16 Jun 15

The European Union needs to enhance the transparency offered by its institutions and member states. Being an active participant in a democracy means being an active participant in the management of public money. 

Citizens do not ask the government for measures against corruption or lack of transparency; there are enough. We just want them to be enforced. There is no use in having the most advanced and ambitious standards against corruption and transparency if they are not implemented or if the means to exercise them do not work.

We are still missing the most important thing: a sincere political will to be transparent. This attitude does not always exist and, of course, without the constant pressure of citizenship, the current attitude of authorities, officials or entities managing public funds will never change.

So the challenge is served. Citizens should be aware of the benefits transparency can bring to their daily lives: corruption will be reduced and the waste of public money will be avoided. In other words, it is possible to have more and better public services with fewer taxes.

Democracy does not consist in just voting every four years, but in participating in the management of public money every day of the year.

The main feature of transparency is its close and indissoluble link with the essence of democracy. Transparency is essential when talking about the rule of law, since it makes it possible to control and render accounts at all levels of governance. Uncontrolled democracy is not democracy.

The ‘right to transparency’ is part of the third generation of human rights, and includes, in turn, the following rights:

a) The right to know: citizens have the right to know what happens inside the government that is at their service.

b) The right to control: when the actions of the authorities are known, it is possible to control the legality and timeliness of the decisions taken, it is also likely to know how public funds are used and what is their fate.

c) The right of citizens to be actors and not just spectators of political life.

Currently, there is no problem in publishing information that citizens need in order to pay taxes or comply with their duties. However, it is more difficult to get economic data that enables people to find the actual destination of revenue.

Access to sensitive information, such as the final cost of administrative contracts, the use or destination of public funds, subsidies granted, cost of salaries, allowances and travel of our political representatives or administrative authorities the funding of political parties, trade unions and employers’ organisations, or waiting lists for health, housing etc has very few doses of transparency.

Another perfect ‘excuse’ used to prevent greater transparency is the frequently invoked need to protect personal data. Individuals’ right to privacy is being used too often to transmute open democracy into an opaque and dark democracy.

Measures against corruption are not enough in themselves. It is necessary that every single publicly funded institution change its way of being and acting. This is linked with the degree of democratic culture of a country. The ‘culture of transparency’ must tirelessly fight his eternal enemy, the ‘culture of secrecy and opacity’. This is not about winning an isolated battle, but winning a war.

Access to public information should be enhanced by the European Union. At EU level there is no general law on administrative procedures to determine clearly the rights of European citizens in relation to institutions and bodies. This is a situation that is far from satisfactory.

Moreover, the importance of citizens’ right to know of justifies the approval of a directive to ensure minimum conditions of access to information regardless of the Member State that is requested. The EU competence titles would be, on the one hand, the internal market and the free flow of information held by the Member States, on the other hand, the protection of fundamental rights of the individual.

On the other hand, the Treaty of Lisbon provides for the EU to accede, as a Union, to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It forms the legal basis for this accession, which is simplified by the new, single legal personality of the European Union. This accession will enable the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to verify the compliance of EU acts with the ECHR, which will also serve to enhance the protection of fundamental rights within the European Union.

The European Court of Human Rights has recently stated that the right of access to public information is included within the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR. The European Union should accede to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Considering the importance of transparency of public authorities in a pluralistic, democratic society, the European Union should accede to the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents for the following reasons:

i) it provides a source of information for the public;

ii) it helps the public to form an opinion on the state of society and on public authorities;

iii) it fosters the integrity, efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of public authorities, so helping affirm their legitimacy.

If EU institutions and Member States themselves are increasingly transparent, they will increase public trust and democratic legitimacy and the European project will be strengthened.

Can you trust someone if you do not know what it does and how it does? Transparency is like sincerity; demanded of others but less of one’s self.

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