6 December 2001
Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-353/99 P Council of the European Union v Hautala
The Court of Justice upholds the judgment of the Court of First Instance annulling the Council's decision to refuse Ms Hautala access to a report on arms exports
The Council must promote the widest possible access of the public to the documents it holds. If a document contains confidential information, the Council must consider whether partial access is possible.
Ms Heidi Hautala, a Member of the European Parliament, asked the Council to send her a report on conventional arms exports. The report was drawn up by a working group within the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), with a view to enhancing the consistent implementation of common criteria for arms exports.
In its decision of 4 November 1997, the Council refused Ms Hautala access to the report, on the ground that it contained sensitive information, disclosure of which would harm the European Union's relations with non-member countries. Under Decision 93/731/EC on public access to Council documents, 1 the Council may refuse access to a document in order to protect the public interest in the field of international relations.
On 19 July 1999 the Court of First Instance annulled the Council's decision, on the ground that the Council should have considered the possibility of partial access to documents. The Council, supported by Spain, has appealed against the judgment of the Court of First Instance. Ms Hautala is supported by Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom.
The Court of Justice of the European Communities today dismissed the appeal and upheld the judgment of the Court of First Instance.
The Court of Justice held that Decision 93/731 neither requires the Council to consider nor expressly prohibits it from considering whether partial access to documents may be granted. It pointed out that the public must have the widest possible access to the documents held by the Commission and the Council and rejected the Council's argument that Decision 93/731 concerns only access to "documents" as such, not to the items of information contained in them.
Finally, the Court considered that the Court of First Instance was entitled to hold that the principle of proportionality obliges the Council to consider partial access to a document containing items of information whose disclosure would endanger one of the interests protected by Decision 93/731.
The Court therefore found that the refusal of partial access constitutes a disproportionate measure for protecting the items of information covered by the exceptions in the decision. The protective aims pursued by the Council in refusing access to the report could have been attained even if the Council had confined itself to censoring the passages in the report which could harm international relations.
Consequently, the Court of Justice upheld the decision of the Court of First Instance, and concludes that the Council may not systematically limit the public's right of access to documents. In the case of the exceptions listed in the codes of conduct of the Council and the Commission, the possibility of partial disclosure must be considered.