A year ago, New Europe raised an issue related to contract signed between the European Commission and a media company. The issue was simple. The Commission had signed a contract for the purchase of certain information services which were to be distributed to the Commission staff. New Europe came to know that the contract was signed in December 2015 and the question to the Commission was twofold. How much money did it pay and what was the contract period. The Commission was vague about the amount, saying that it was below €60,000 – which is a threshold above which different procedures need to be followed. They also refused to unveil the duration or time covered by the contract.
Usually, all subscriptions for services terminate on the end of the calendar year, i.e. December 31, and are renewed, usually under the same terms for the next calendar year. As the services purchased by the Commission were commercially launched on December 16, 2015, it could be interpreted that the subscription period ended on December 31 (fiscal year), then the weekly subscription cost would be over €25,000. Therefore, in this case the annual subscription to the service would amount to approximately, €1.5m. This lack of clarity and wide range of possible interpretations is the reason (which we explained at the time to the Communication Department of the Commission, aka DG COMM) it was important to state clearly the duration of the contract. €57,000 per year in one thing and €1,500,0000 is a different thing.
The Commission played cat and mouse for some time and then, around February the mouse gave up and everybody was happy. The fat cat Commission was left alone to enjoy a moment’s peace, a nap in front of the fireplace.
Time has passed, however, and the cat’s master has come home. The master is in this case the Budgetary Control (CONT) Committee of the European Parliament; and the question this time was raised not in the pressroom but on the occasion of the discharge of the 2015 budget.
The Commission however did not back down, and stood firm with their response. The contract was confirmed at €57,000 but again the Commission did not disclose the subscription period because it is a “commercial secret” protected by Article 4(2) of Regulation (EC) 1049/2001, first indent.
Although I know it is not correct, I (personally) can accept to be under informed, and even at times misinformed by the Commission; at times a fellow must be wise enough to play the fool. After all it will not be the first or last time, and journalism is a warzone where battles must be selected carefully.
What I cannot accept, however, is that the Commission dares to misinform and fool the only credible Institution left in this city, the Budget Control Committee of the European Parliament. This is too much.
First, what the Commission says, that Regulation 1049 protects “commercial secrets” is a lie. The Regulation refers to “commercial interests.” Not to secrets. Second and most important is how, Article 4(2) of Regulation (EC) 1049/2001, first indent, starts and how it ends. It says “The institution shall refuse access to a document … unless there is an overriding public interest in disclosure.”
A senior judge of a major Member State with whom I discussed the matter after emailing him the documentation was adamant: “There is no greater public interest, than transparent dealings between government and the media, whose function is to serve as a watchdog of its functioning in service of the citizens. Furthermore, to hide behind the notion that the duration of a contract is a commercial secret is ludicrous. I personally would throw the case out.”
Somewhere between DG COMM – which oversees media, and the College of Commissioners under the leadership of President Jean-Claude Juncker and Vice-President Frans Timmermans, something has been lost. To jeopardize transparency over one of the smallest and inconsequential contracts the Commission generally deals with, is more indicative of its philosophical and practical understanding of transparency than anything else.
The question now remains: where is the transparency that this new ‘political’ Commission promised? And how far will the European Parliament go to be treated with the respect the institution commands?
Eventually, if anyone has the time and patience, they could also ask how many €55-60,000 purchases the Commission has made in the last few years with taxpayer money, from whom they have been made, and for what services. Oh wait. That may be crossing into ‘commercial secrets’ territory too.