Malta’s permanent representation – the primary link between the government and EU institutions – was one of only two countries who refused to give access to information on its meetings with lobby groups to the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) which investigates EU member state permanent representations, to determine to what extent they are a target of lobbying.
ALTER-EU, an umbrella group of transparency campaign groups, sent its request on 6 July, 2015, with a follow up email on 31 July. Malta’s representation replied on the same day to say they would look into the request, but ALTER-EU had to follow up again on 15 September, referring specifically to the Maltese access to information law.
ALTER-EU’s report says “we received an acknowledgement of receipt on 22 October, 2015, and on 1 December, 2015 we were refused access to the information “due to Part V or Part VI [of RTI law,] there is good reason for withholding the document requested”. We asked for an internal review of the decision on 12 December, 2015, and on 4 January, 2016, we were told that the decision still stands.”
Articles 5 and 6 of the Freedom of Information Act list a plethora of different reasons why access to information should be denied, including information which could cause damage to the security, the defence, or the international relations of Malta.
The law also exempts information or documents which give away trade secrets or “would divulge any information or matter communicated in confidence by or on behalf of” foreign governments and international organisations.
ALTER-EU lodges appeal
In 2015, ALTER-EU submitted access to information requests to 17 EU member state permanent representations, asking for a list of meetings held with lobbyists in the previous 12 months.
Only four governments, namely Ireland, Romania, the Netherlands, and Poland, provided all or some information despite the fact that all member states, except Cyprus, have national legislation governing the right of access to information.
Six countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) stated that they did not hold the information requested, five other countries (Austria, Cyprus, France, Greece, and Italy) did not reply, and Malta and the UK refused.
The request was initially made to Malta’s representation under Regulation 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents.
However, the representation’s spokesperson added, the information requested did not fall under the scope of this Regulation as it does not concern a request for a document pertaining to the institutions of the European Union.
After having the first request turned down, ALTER-EU made a request for information under the Malta’s Freedom of Information Act, at which point the request was processed in line with the relevant provisions.
“This request could not be accommodated on the basis of the exemptions specifically provided for in the same Act. The extensive request would include sensitive information involving diplomatic and economic relations. Moreover, the extensive information requested is not available,” Malta’s representation insisted.
Insisting that Malta’s representation was withholding information of public interest, ALTER-EU lodged an appeal with the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.
Lobbyists ‘exploiting’ loopholes
In its report published in March 2016, ALTER-EU said that the data provided by the Netherlands, Ireland, Romania, and Poland showed that many lobby meetings take place with permanent representations in Brussels and a majority are with corporate lobbyists, giving big businesses significant access to promote corporate agendas.
“Furthermore, the data showed that lobbyists are able to exploit a loophole in the EU transparency rules which enables them to lobby the permanent representations without being registered in the EU transparency register,” the report says.
21% of the meetings listed in the data provided by the Dutch permanent representation were with lobbies unregistered with the EU transparency register at the time of the meeting.
The research found that 63% of the 104 lobby meetings held by the Polish and Romanian permanent representations were with corporate interests, whilst only 20% were with civil society organisations.
The research, ALTER-EU said, illustrates an apparent complacency about lobbying, evidenced by the lack of monitoring and record-keeping by the permanent representatives about who lobbies them.
“This prevents public access to, and scrutiny of, information about the lobbying around EU decision-making processes,” it said.