Virtual Public Sphere

by | 23. June 2020

Europe | On Monday the 11th of May, in honor of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights turning 20 years old, we held our first online Public Sphere event discussing the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. As part of the Connect Europe project with 7 civil society organisations, we aimed to connect citizens to the EU Charter and celebrate its accomplishments over the past 20 years, while discussing ways to potentially modernise the Charter. Our intern Grégory von Boetticher shared some insights.

Though initially planned as an in-person event in Cologne, in respect to quarantine and social-distancing measures the event was held online, somewhat hampering participant engagement. Nevertheless, alongside our panelists, Daniel Freund (MEP for the Green Party), Helen Darbishire (Executive Director of the NGO Access Info Europe), and Marie Jünemann (Mehr Demokratie), more than 70 people joined our discussion on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

A central point of the discussion became the fundamental right of access to documents. As stated by the European Commission: “Any citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State, has a right of access to documents of the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the Union, whatever their medium.” 

Our online sphere
Governments did not create citizens to govern them. CItizens create and finance governments to organise our societies. Any information anything the government holds is ultimately ours.
Daniel Freund

Member of European Parliament, The Greens

Helen Darbishire pointed out that there are three main problems with the right of access to documents that need to be addressed. 

First, the awareness of this fundamental right (and others). Reflected by a poll held during the call, the majority of participants did not know they had the right to request documents from any EU body.

Second, the functionality of the rights at the EU level to set an example for the member states. In the case of the right of access to documents, participants said that often there was no coherent timeline of when you could expect an answer by the EU (if any).

Last, the implementation of some minimal standards for each right in every member state, so that these rights may also be guaranteed on a national level.

In the case of the right of access to documents, participants said that often there was no coherent timeline of when you could expect an answer by the EU (if any).

Last, the implementation of some minimal standards for each right in every member state, so that these rights may also be guaranteed on a national level.

Marie Jünemann provided the example of the Aarhus convention, granting access to environmental information, where the EU did not only commit to follow its own directive but also set a standard for all member states in regard to the freedom of environmental information.

This was followed by the exploration of the requirements set on who may request information. As the request for documents is only granted to EU citizens, the EU Commission requests postal addresses and official identification of the inquirer, to verify their status.

Though all three panelists agreed that postal addresses should be irrelevant, especially given that your EU citizenship is not defined by your location of residence, whether or not official identification is to be provided was not as clear.

The more documents are needed to make a request for documents, the more obstacles there are for EU citizens to obtain information and maintain this fundamental right. However, it is not clear what other options the EU Commission has to reliably confirm the EU citizenship of the inquirer.

Video of our virtual Dome Talk

Helen Darbishire refuted this argument, as she contended that it is irrelevant who is requesting the information. This point is further substantiated given that these are not documents containing matters of national security. 

We need to complement our work on EU transparency with pushing greater transparency at the national level as well.
Helen Darbishire

Acces Info Europe

Marie Jünemann echoed this assessment, as she had previously presented about the value and need for transparency in a democracy. The health and functionality of a democracy is often defined by the citizens’ participation in it, making transparency an essential element, as one has to understand the government (or in this case the EU) apparatus to be able to engage with it.

Seconded by Daniel Freund, he also elaborated further on the citizen-government relationship: “Governments did not create citizens to govern them. Citizens create and finance governments to organise our societies. Ultimately, the money they are spending is ours and we should all be aware of that.”

As such, besides issues such as national security, all the information governments hold is ultimately the citizen’s and thus we have a right to access it.

Concluding the discussion on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Helen Darbishire, Marie Jünemann and Daniel Freund all reiterated the need to practice our fundamental rights as the best possible way to protect and advance them.

Share this post:

0 Shares
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
 

Some impressions of our Dome Event: