The UK environmental group took up its right to formally complain after officials at the EC twice refused to publish documents relating to ongoing trade liberalisation talks.
Friends of the Earth wants the EU to publish documents containing EU negotiating demands as well as requests by other countries to the EU as part of ongoing discussions towards the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
Critics of GATS want negotiations made public because they believe the treaty will undermine democratic control over the provision of essential services such as health and education, as well as disrupting the delivery of these services to the poor, particularly in the Third World.
Friends of the Earth's Corporate Globalisation Campaigner Eve Mitchell said: -Given the potential of GATS to affect much of our daily lives, it is vital that the process by which those agreements are reached is transparent and democratic. Parliamentarians and members of the public have simply not had access to key information.-
Mitchell said: -We want to get the information to people who need to know - nurses, unions - and to provide the possibility of some other input into the process, other than the government.-
Friends of the Earth asked the EC to publish details of requests by non-EU countries, such as the USA, to liberalise the provision of services in the EU, as well as details of the demands made by the EU to other World Trade Organisation members to open up their services to the private sector.
The EC refused to release the documents saying that to publish the information would undermine the protection of the public interest in regard of international relations. Friends of the Earth then made a formal complaint to the European Ombudsman, Professor P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, a former national ombudsman in Greece.
Although the Ombudsman has no binding powers on EC institutions, he can recommend that an EC body changes its position and failing this, can bring the matter to the attention of the European Parliament. However, a spokesman for the Ombudsman office said it normally takes six months to reach a decision.
Red Pepper has learned that the European Ombudsman has already dealt with a number of cases involving public requests for access to trade-related documents, many involving bilateral negotiations between the EU and US.
In addition to NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, other organisations have called for GATS negotiations to be made public. The European branch of the International Parliamentary Network, which includes a number of MEPs, said in October 2002: -GATS negotiations have been undertaken in total secrecy, with no democratic oversight whatsoever. Nothing justifies the fact that parliamentarians are not informed concerning these ongoing negotiations.-
-It is unacceptable that European and national parliamentarians, citizens, public service trade unions and NGOs should only be informed afterwards, when everything has already been decided, so that so-called "consultations" of the European or national parliaments become more formalities. Transparency should be the rule.-
A document leaked to NGOs and the media on 16 April 2002 showed the detailed requests made by the EU to 29 of its principal trading partners, including the USA and Canada, as well as less developed countries such as Brazil, Philippines and Indonesia. Requests included the liberalisation of major service sectors including water supply, waste treatment, energy, transportation, scientific research and postal services.