The rollback of transparency

BRUSSELS – Transparency, once a ‘conditio sine qua non’ for democracy and good governance, is suffering a clear backlash in Europe.

By Xavier Sol and Ana Colovic, originally appeared on EU Observer

In a post-Occupy, post-Wikileaks world, transparency has nestled in the public consciousness. Outraged by the abuses of power, people took to the streets demanding more say in decisions influencing their lives and more accountability by political leaders. People demanded better representation and they knew transparency was crucial to get it.

Yet at the same time we are witnessing a silent backlash against participation and transparency. Citizens are being surreptitiously pushed back from control over public life.

It could be seen very clearly during the economic crisis when, despite protests against austerity measures day after day, the EU and individual governments were pushing through with unpopular austerity measures.

Increasingly crucial economic decisions are being made by a narrow group of decision-makers including the Troika, members of the European Council, bankers and economic experts, while the European Parliament and its national counterparts were largely marginalised.

Another symbolic example is the total emasculation of the “European Citizen Initiative” – a tool launched with fanfare at the beginning of this year and meant to give Europeans the ability to alter legislation if a sufficient number of them (a million) gathers behind the cause.

And yet earlier this month a citizen initiative to give Europeans a say in the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership(TTIP) was struck down by the Commission on questionable legal grounds.

Despite the “citizen initiative” being one of the main arguments EU institutions would invoke to prove their openness to citizens, the Commission seems to reserve a right to decide on which issues citizens can speak.

The EU’s bank kicks back

When it comes to European public investment banks, we fear the same dynamics are taking root in the way public money is spent. The European Investment Bank’s (EIB) draft for a new transparency policy is a major setback from what has been gained since we first started campaigning for the bank to be more open.

Instead of bringing further improvements, the current draft would mean a major step backwards.

Among other things, the bank is proposing a significant expansion of its existing exemptions on information disclosure – going beyond what is requested by EU legislation. As a result, EU citizens would be unable to access most EIB internal documents, even if they were of public interest.

The EIB is already ranked as “poor” in the 2013 International Aid Transparency Initiative. If the policy is adopted as it currently stands, it would turn the EIB into one of the world’s most secretive financial institutions.

This is happening despite earlier commitments to greater transparency and accountability to EU citizens made by the bank when it benefited from a capital increase in 2013.

And in spite of the European Parliament repeatedly calling on the EIB to increase the transparency of its operations and to make more information available.

This planned decrease in transparency comes as the institution is gearing up to play a core role in a pro-growth strategy prepared by the new European Commission run by Jean-Claude Juncker. The strategy involves the generation of an extra €300 billion in new investments into the European economy.

It seems that EU leaders are willing to pour more public money into another debatable growth package without allowing public oversight, let alone a voice for EU citizens.

But citizen groups and NGOs have increasingly beefed up their capacity to monitor and pressure public institutions.

Over the past years, awareness about the EIB and its operations has grown among the European media and the public, not in the least because of NGO efforts. With more money being pushed through the EIB, more eyes will be watching the bank. There can be no other direction but towards transparency.

Xavier Sol is director of Counter Balance. Ana Colovic is Bankwatch EIB coordinator

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