April 13. 2024. 5:33

The Daily

Read the World Today

European Commission cracks down on internal transparency over security

The EU executive has removed the names of officials below the middle management level from its public register, citing security and data protection reasons.

The Who’s Who website is the public repository for EU institutions, where citizens and stakeholders can map the internal departments and civil servants. In the past few days, without any public announcement, the Commission removed most public officials from the radar.

Previously, public servants below the Head of Units, namely middle management level, were presented with only the last name and the initial of the first name, together with the phone number of their office. These details are no longer publicly available.

“Alongside its obligations linked to transparency and accountability, the Commission has the duty to protect its staff, especially those dealing with sensitive files. To avoid that these colleagues are subject to undue pressure from external sources, the access to the names and contact details of non-management staff has been limited,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

The EU executive branch said that they have simply aligned with the long-standing practice of the European Parliament, the General Secretariat of the EU Council and several national administrations, where the names and contact details are only available for management positions.

However, the European Commission is the largest of the EU institutions regarding staff members. It occupies a crucial position as it is the only one with the ‘right of initiative’, namely the capacity to kick off the legislative procedure by presenting a legislative proposal.

The decision seems to have been long in the making. Months ago, the Commission’s internal policy was changed to only allow EU officials from the director level upward to sign public documents.

“The measure is part of the Commission’s increased efforts on security and emphasis on data protection, respecting the requests from a number of colleagues on non-managerial positions not to disclose their data on EU Whoiswho,” the Commission representative added.

In other words, the possibility for stakeholders like lobbyists, consultants, NGOs and journalists to know which public servants are working on the file of their interest and being able to reach out to them directly was considered a security liability from the EU executive and a data protection issue for its employees.

“This recent decision demonstrates how EU officials are becoming increasingly mindful of their data protection rights. However, one might wonder the extent to which data protection plays into this decision or whether it has just been used ‘opportunistically’,” Diletta De Cicco, a Counsel at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs.

Stakeholders involved in the EU policymaking fear that reducing the amount of public information will restrict further access to the process for those that are less connected or have fewer resources to invest in mapping out the relevant staff members.

“Journalists, NGOs, and civil society need to be able to know who are the officials working on policy and have ways to contact them. This is essential for the proper functioning of political deliberation in the European Union and the Commission should not be taking a step backwards on transparency,” Estelle Masse, Europe Legislative Manager and Global Data Protection Lead at Access Now, told EURACTIV.

Civil society groups have a long-standing grievance on the transparency of policymaking at the EU level, starting with the interinstitutional negotiations, so-called trilogues, where no document is made public until after a political agreement is reached.

Other recurring complaints regard repeated lack of compliance with the deadlines for requests made under the Freedom of Information Regulation and an increased tendency to grant meetings only after a legislative proposal has been delivered.