The EU declares loudly in its treaties and in its marketing puff that it is an enthusiastic proponent of freedom of information and transparency (see https://ec.europa.eu/info/about-european-commission/service-standards-and-principles/transparency/freedom-information_en). However:
The EU Parliament’s Secretary-General for the last ten years has been Klaus Welle. One of his responsibilities is to administer ‘the Bureau’, an internal Parliamentary body that looks after many of the Parliament’s affairs. While the agenda and minutes of Bureau meetings are published, the documents that they use are not published.
Between September and December 2018 EUObserver requested access to 22 such documents. The Secretary-General is also responsible for responding to requests for access to documents. Herr Welle’s response to the EUObserver’s request was to grant access to just one of the 22 documents and to deny access to the other 21.
In 2017 a majority of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) “explicitly reminded the Bureau that it had already called on the Bureau in 2016 to in principle make all documents public which are listed in Bureau agendas, by publishing them on the parliament’s website.” This is in line with requirements laid out in the Lisbon Treaty, Article 11 of which has the following:
The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.
And in Article 15:
Each institution, body, office or agency shall ensure that its proceedings are transparent…
(One caveat is needed here, Article 101 of the would-be Withdrawal Agreement has the following;
The term “members of the institutions” does not include members of the European Parliament.
And perhaps we should infer that the Parliament itself is not an ‘institution’ of the EU, though it surely is a “body, office or agency” of the Union.
But this does not seem to be the reason for rejecting requests for access to documents.
Welle himself, in response to the request from EUObserver, offers this argument for not making the documents public, that this “would have as a consequence that the secretary-general, as well as parliament’s services involved in the genesis of the notes, would refrain from setting out their views and knowledge in such notes out of concern that they could be used to challenge or undermine the decisions to be taken“.
Let’s put this in plain English: “if people knew how and why we made our decisions they might question us and this would be a nuisance and we might have to change the way we do things.” They clearly don’t want to be challenged, let alone undermined.
(4) Revealing Appointment (Part 2)
Klaus Welle is a civil servant and as such operates under a strict code of political neutrality. Such a code applies also to British civil servants, though one anonymous employee of the Civil Service has doubts about its political neutrality:
“Should MPs vote again on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, it would be anything but delivering on the Brexit vote from two years ago. How would I know? Because I work within the heart of government.
“As a civil servant I can tell you large parts of the Whitehall machine are systematically working against leaving the EU.”
By “Theresa May’s Brexit deal” we assume s/he means the draft Withdrawal Agreement, which we argue must have been concocted in Brussels even though the Prime Minister is assiduously promoting it, much to the annoyance of a large majority of MPs.
“A quick scroll though the social media accounts of my colleagues and you will find images of them proudly waving ‘Remain’ placards, campaigning for a ‘People’s Vote’ …and of course the usual apocalyptic messages of doom since the Brexit vote. The double-standards are astonishing.”
Our question is to what extent the Government is colluding with the civil servants who are “systematically working against leaving the EU.” The evidence is thin but present; although Mrs May has said often that she intends to deliver Brexit on the due date, she has now back-tracked and won an extension into April. That, she hopes, will give time to win over the majority of the House of Commons, which has twice rejected ‘her’ plan. We think her plan stinks but if it fails again then the route to reversing the Brexit decision is open to her and her Remain colleagues, and the Civil Service.
“This department [the Foreign Office] is particularly notorious for its anti-Brexit bias. My experience tells me that there is a genuine hatred of those who voted for Brexit. I recall my first day in the Civil Service as a graduate, being invited to a meeting of senior members of staff who spent the good part of two hours in agreement that the public made a “stupid” decision in the EU referendum.”
This indicates that the author is a recent recruit to the Service (since the Referendum) and that may account for his or her surprise at the behaviour of colleagues. Those of us old enough to have enjoyed ‘Yes, Minister’ are perhaps less surprised. Sadly, the disdain for the public at large is widespread among those who are OK with the present state of affairs. And it is the ‘public-at-large’ who are disdained and any section of ‘them’ who have the temerity to disagree with ‘us’ are treated with the contempt that “stupid” reveals.
“Unfortunately, this bias doesn’t end with snide insults and childish quips. It goes to the root of their day-to-day work and has truly negative impacts on the way we conduct the important tasks ahead of us.”
Again, the author is more surprised than we are at this consequence, perhaps a human one, of the difficulty of conducting one’s actions while suppressing one’s feelings and beliefs, whatever code of conduct one has signed up to.
The author reveals his own political preferences (the writing seems characteristically male but that may just reveal our own bias) when s/he attempts to explain the behaviour of colleagues: “This makes the prevalent leftist culture within the Civil Service all the more concerning. These ardent remainer and left wing civil servants are the ones who provide the briefings, select the invites and choose the priorities for Ministers.”
We can accept the characterisation of civil servants as acting consistently with their own beliefs without accepting an explanation relying on left-wing bias. Our own view is that such behaviour is better explained by practical than by ideological considerations. After all, the Civil Service has handed over much of its responsibilities – and many of its employees – to the EU and the thought of having to take all that on again in a more globally connected world may well be intimidating.
But we share with the author his, her or ‘their’ concern, if not surprise, at the Brexit-hostile activities of the Civil Service, or substantial sections of it. Our concern is that civil servants in Britain appear to be acting in concert with those in the EU and this ‘concert’ may reach to the top of the Service on each side.