Brussels, April 19 - The European Commission has bowed to legal pressure and has finally fully disclosed letters that were sent by car company Porsche to former Enterprise Commissioner Verheugen in the period 2005-2007. The Commission has illegally withheld these letters for four years. It only decided to disclose them under the threat of court action by Friends of the Earth Europe and environmental lawyers ClientEarth.
The legal stick makes the Commission shift towards transparency
It has taken four years for NGOs to get hold of documents that should be publicly accessible in the first place. In the same period the Commission has shown strong commitment to protecting commercial interests. Manufacturers' interests have been allowed to inform the legislative process while the balancing influence of legitimate public participation on crucial environnmental matters has been denied. Only the threat of being taken to court made the Commission comply with Regulation 1049/2001 on access to documents and act lawfully.
Background to the case
On 1st March 2007, Friends of the Earth Europe asked the Commission to disclose letters written by Porsche and other car companies regarding the Commission's approach to carbon dioxide emissions from cars. Most of the letters were disclosed, except for parts of the letters that were sent by Porsche. In October 2007 Friends of the Earth filed a complaint to the European Ombudsman, which ruled in July 2010 that 'by failing properly to justify why it refused access in their entirety to three letters sent by Porsche AG to former Vice-president Verheugen, the Commission committed an instance of maladministration'. But the Commission did not react and still did not disclose the letters entirely. Friends of the Earth Europe and ClientEarth again requested access to the parts of the letters that had not been disclosed. The Commission refused again. A confirmatory application was filed in February 2011; the Commission did not reply. Under threat of legal action before the European General Court, the Commission has now finally disclosed the full letters.
The information: A Commission devoted to sports cars
The parts of the letters previously withheld and now disclosed are written in stronger language than the rest and reveal that Porsche was arguing its continued existence was threatened by the position of the Commission on uniform carbon dioxide emissions limits for all car manufacturers.
They also clearly reveal that Mr. Verheugen was not only supporting Porsche's position so that Porsche would not be disadvantaged by the approach being adopted, but that he was even ready to go further and to strengthen Porsche's ability to compete by making the law favourable to Porsche.
While the voluntary agreement of EU car manufacturers of 1999 provided for uniform emission standards per car; the EU legislation of 2009 provides for emission standards for car fleets, with several other weaknesses which accommodate the likes of Porsche. The behind closed doors lobbying worked.
Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe says: "This case shows the European Commission is more interested in protecting the interest of Porsche than the public interest. Only under threat of a legal action was it willing to disclose information that should have been in the public domain long time ago."
Anais Berthier, environmental justice lawyer at ClientEarth, says: ''That the Commission will only act transparently when litigation looms is a clear symptom of inherent and unhealthy secretiveness. Legal intervention has resolved the immediate issue of unjustly witheld information; unfortunately it cannot recover the lost opportunity for citizens' rightful engagement in the legislative process. It has taken four years to access documents for public record, in stark contrast to the pace at which manufacturers' interest are accommodated in legislation. We will continue to work for an end to closed-doors cosiness."