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Decision in case 672/2018/THH on the European Commission’s partial refusal of access to documents concerning the Turkish Stream Pipeline project

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  • Case: 672/2018/THH
    Opened on 13 Apr 2018 - Decision on 05 Jul 2018
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Commission

Background to the complaint

1. In November 2017, the complainant, a journalist, requested the European Commission to grant him public access to documents concerning the Turkish Stream Pipeline project.

2. The Commission identified eight documents as falling within the scope of the access request. However, it refused access to these documents on grounds of the protection of the public interest as regards international relations[1].

3. In January 2018, the complainant asked the Commission to review its decision not to release the documents.

4.  Following this request, the Commission carried out a review of the case and decided to grant the complainant partial access to the documents. To justify the partial refusal of access, the Commission invoked the exceptions for the protection of personal data, of its decision-making process and of international relations[2]. In addition, the Commission argued that parts of the documents did not fall within the scope of the complainant’s access request.

5. Due to the various exceptions invoked by the Commission regarding the partial refusal of access, large parts of the documents released to the complainant have been redacted. As the complainant does not consider himself to be in a position to verify whether the redactions were justified, he turned to the Ombudsman on 6 April 2018.

The inquiry

6. The Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the complainant’s concern that the redactions applied by the Commission might not be justified. In the course of the inquiry, the Ombudsman inspected the eight documents at issue and assessed those parts that have been redacted by the Commission.

Arguments made by the European Commission

7. Regarding the protection of personal data, the Commission explained that it was required to redact the names, job titles and contact details of non-senior staff members and non-senior officials of national authorities as this information constitutes personal data[3]. Furthermore, the complainant had not established a “necessity” of having this data disclosed, as required by law.

8. Concerning the protection of public interest as regards international relations, the Commission stated that the withheld parts assessed developments in the Turkish Stream project, their possible impact on the EU, and ‘lines to take’ on sensitive issues. In particular, the Commission argued that it was implementing a strategy for the security of gas supply and was therefore in dialogues on energy with the authorities of countries that are current or prospective gas suppliers. Thus, full public disclosure of the documents at issue would reveal its internal strategic considerations and assumptions that are subject to change. Also, disclosure would weaken the EU’s position towards its international partners and its margin of manoeuvre in negotiations.

The Ombudsman's assessment

9. In the course of the inquiry, the Ombudsman, received from the Commission copies of all documents at issue in the complaint and was thus able to carry out a comprehensive review.

10. Regarding the protection of personal data the Ombudsman agrees that the Commission was correct to redact the names, job titles and contact details of non-senior staff members and non-senior officials of national authorities. The Ombudsman’s inspection of the documents at issue has confirmed that the Commission redacted only personal data that is protected by one of the provisions set out in Regulation 45/2001.

11. As regards the redaction of certain substantive sections of the documents, the Ombudsman is satisfied that all redactions are in line with the applicable law as they either fall outside the scope of the access request (so the redacted text does not concern the Turkish Stream Pipeline project) or are covered by the need to protect international relations.

12. Regarding the exception for the protection of international relations, the Ombudsman, based on the inspection, is of the view that the requested documents contain information which is likely to be used in gas supply negotiations with third countries. It is reasonably foreseeable that release of this information would undermine the European Union’s position in such negotiations. . The Ombudsman therefore considers that the Commission’s decision to rely on this exception is reasonable.

13. Moreover, the Commission set out, in sufficient detail, the reasons for its partial refusal of access by providing information that sheds light on the sensitive content of the requested documents. It explained the context in which the requested documents were produced and how disclosure of the redacted parts of the documents could undermine the protection of the public interest regarding international relations. The Ombudsman therefore considers that the Commission has provided sufficiently specific information on the (sensitive) content of the documents at issue.

14. Neither of these two exceptions may be set aside on grounds of an overriding public interest. As all the withheld parts of the documents are covered by at least one of them, it was not necessary to consider the Commission’s arguments regarding the protection of its decision-making process.

Conclusion

Based on the inquiry, the Ombudsman closes this case with the following finding:

There has been no maladministration in the Commission’s partial refusal of access to documents concerning the Turkish Stream Pipeline project.

The complainant and the Commission will be informed of this decision.

 

Emily O'Reilly

European Ombudsman

Strasbourg, 05/07/2018

 

[1] In accordance with article 4(1)(a), third indent, of Regulation 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2001 regarding public access to the European Parliament, Council and Commission documents, OJ 2001 L 145, p. 43.

[2] In accordance with Article 4, paragraphs (1)(a), third indent, (1)(b) and (3) of Regulation 1049/2001.

[3] In accordance with Article 2(a) of Regulation (EC) No 45/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2000 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data by the Community institutions and bodies and on the free movement of such data, OJ 2001 L 8, p. 1.