Provided: archiving is selection. Not all documents, emails, text messages and apps need to be kept forever. But the rampant way in which the European Commission is destroying its documents, as revealed by the European Investigative Collaborations, NRC is an infringement of the right to publicity. One that leads to damage especially at an agency whose decision-making is already criticized for the lack of transparency.
Since the installation of new software in 2015, documents and e-mails from and to the European Commission are only archived if individual officials in Brussels tick a separate box. If they don’t, the files will be automatically deleted after six months. Only if they themselves decide that a document contains ‘important information’ and/or ‘requires follow-up action’ is it stored in the central digital archive of the Commission.
Also read: It actually said: no emails found. Brussels deliberately shreds information
It is unclear whether there is a proper selection or destruction list, as is required by law in the Netherlands, among others. Neither the rules from 2015 nor the adjustments from 2018 can be requested.
It is clear that, according to the Commission, SMS messages do not need to be kept at all, which, in its view, fall into the category of ‘short-lived’ files. But with archive records it is not about the external form, but about the function. It is also contrary to EU’s own rules: every citizen has the right to ‘access the documents of the Union’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, regardless of the medium in which they are recorded’. So it does not matter whether an archive consists of parchment or a twenty-first-century variant.
But according to the method used by the Commission, it is not possible to view the text messages that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sent and received from the boss of pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Albert Bourla. Messages that, according to von der Leyen himself, were crucial in assuring vaccine deliveries. Checking how she did that is impossible: documents that are not archived cannot be retrieved either.
The European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, said this week that the Commission would work on transparency as early as 2005. So far, little has come of this. The Commission says that of the slightly more than 8,000 requests for access, it granted 81 percent in full or in part. O’Reilly pointed out that this also included “meaningless things” such as press releases, which “have no real value in relation to what the citizen was looking for”. And that while the EU recognizes the right to access documents, it does not recognize the right to information.
That’s a subtle, but relevant difference. Earlier it appeared that the European Council stopped taking minutes of the positions of various member states. No document, no information. The Rutte doctrine at European level.
It is no longer possible to make a decision as to what should or should not be made public. Let alone having a discussion about it. Accountability to third parties, an important element of archiving, is completely impossible.
The European Commission is shooting itself in the foot with this. It is in its own interest to be transparent. The weak base on which it relies is damaging to citizens’ confidence. In the EU too, that trust is crucial for the functioning of democracy.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 19, 2021
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