The European Union and State Secrets: a fully evolving institutional framework

Many contemporary debates surround the issue of the treatment of confidential information and state secrets both in the United States (1) and the European Union (2) and questions have also been raised over the WikiLeaks phenomenon. It therefore seems timely to try to shed some light on the way confidential information is handled by the European Union institutions, especially since we now have the entry into force of the Treaties of the European Union, on the Functioning of the European Union and the now binding Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Clearly, it is not technically appropriate to talk about state secrets in the case of the European Union, since the latter remains an international organisation entrusted by its Member States to intervene only in those areas established by the founding treaties and to pursue those objectives established by the funding treaties (3). Nevertheless, the European order now spans such a wide range of competences and has developed such a direct relation between citizens and the institutions that the need for transparency and political accountability is as essential for the European Union as it is for its Member States.

As long as the institutions’ work was covered by professional secrecy, there was minimal risk of leaks and any undesirable impact at the national level during the negotiating phases of European measures. Problems related to a different perception of transparency/secrecy were paradoxically raised with the process of democratisation of the European institutions which, due to Maastricht, has been accompanied with the widening of competences. Additionally, and more importantly, the Amsterdam Treaty ensured that the right of access to documents of the Parliament, Council and Commission (art. 255 TEC) was recognised as a fundamental right of European citizens (and of those legally residing in the EU).

In theory, a fundamental right can only be limited by law (4), but the institutional framework resulting from the implementing measures of article 255 ( EC Regulation 1049/01) is a long way from defining a coherent regime of this sensitive topic. To obtain such a result it would have been necessary to mediate between two different juridical traditions which divided (and still divide) some countries; indeed, Northern Europe is traditionally more favourable to transparency needs whereas some southern countries prioritise the efficiency of the decision making process ahead of transparency (5).

This unresolved conflict is reflected in Regulation 1049/01, which regulates for two different regimes, respectively one of a general nature and one of a specific nature. The general one establishes transparency and the right of access to information as the general rule to which it is possible to derogate only under the provisions established by art. 4. Furthermore, it stems from the will of the author who submitted the document to the institution (whether that be another institution, a Member State or a third party). The ratio behind the suppression of the “author rule” as confirmed by the Court (6), is evidently that of avoiding that additional exceptions are added to those already foreseen by law (7), which would have the effect of nullifying the answer to the citizen requesting the access to a document or information (and therefore being incompatible with the principle of certainty of law).

Nonetheless, the general rule of Regulation 1049/01 also presents a significant exception to article 9 (8), which establishes a specific regime for the so-called “sensitive documents” defined as “… documents originating from the institutions or the agencies established by them, from Member States, third countries or International Organisations, classified as ‘TRÈS SECRET/TOP SECRET’, ‘SECRET’ or ‘CONFIDENTIEL’ (9) in accordance with the rules of the institution concerned, which protect essential interests of the European Union or of one or more of its Member States in the areas covered by Article 4(1)(a), notably public security, defence and military matters.

The regime established in Article 9 is evidently a “lex specialis”, which is only applicable to the external affairs and defence matters (the former “second pillar “). However, it is also an incomplete regime because Regulation 1049/01 does not specify (as foreseen in art. 255 TEC which now is replaced by art. 15 TFEU) the general principles regarding the classification of “sensitive” documents. Although the legislator has abdicated its role and referred the decision to the institutions internal regulations, defining such a rule is not a mere organisational matter.

The official justification for this attempt at a ‘quick-fix’ in 2001 was related to the approaching deadline for the approval of the regulation, as foreseen by the Treaty. The real reason, however, was the impossibility to reach an agreement between the European Parliament and the Council over the adoption of NATO standards at the European level.

Due to article 9 and the fact that that it refers to the internal regulation of the institutions, some measures were introduced through the back door, since the internal regulations of the Council and the Commission (11) were accompanied by the need to have the author’s consent when classifying the document as “sensitive”(12).

In this way, not only have NATO standards become de facto the standards of reference for EU classified information (13), although (for the moment) limited to external and defence matters, but it also re-establishes the pre-Maastricht regime for EU citizens and institutions such as the European Parliament and the Court of Justice. Indeed, these actors cannot refer to the “right” of access to information, because the holding institution can always oppose it in the name of non compatibility with NATO standards of internal security regulations (14) or more simply, because the member state or third party (author or co-author) of the classified document does not give its consent to the transmission of the document.

The result is the existence of a conspicuous number of agreements between on one side the Council and the Commission, and the other side third countries, concluded on the basis of an unstable institutional framework (15). Recently, the same agreements have also been concluded by EU agencies such as Europol, Eurojust or Frontex (and therefore outside of the so-called second pillar), on the basis of which the institution and/or the agency (although negotiating on behalf of the European Union) (16) accept that the third country may oppose access to information to EU citizens and even the Parliament and Court.

It is therefore legitimate to wonder about the extent to which this situation is compatible with a European order, allegedly based on the principle of representative democracy (17), fundamental rights and citizenship (18), especially following the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. The issue becomes even more urgent in view of the passage to the ordinary legislative regime and to the (almost) total control of the Court of sensitive matters such as police, internal security and intelligence cooperation (which are increasingly labelled as classified information).

Without effective transparency, risks of abuse or “policy laundering” become too high. This risk is also linked to the reproduction of unwanted situations where information in the field of defence and external affairs (Chapter 2 of the EU Treaty) are kept hidden, not only from the European Parliament for the reasons illustrated above, but also form the national parliaments as the information is regarded as a “European” secret. In this context, the national parliaments arguably receive the same level of access as a third country.

Therefore, the result would be the complete absence of a counterbalance mechanism which should characterise every democratic system and which would be strengthened by these security and defence policies under the formal coverage of European “executive privilege”, which not even the President of the United States of America has ever dreamt.

Luckily, the situation is less worrisome in other parts of the treaties, for example where it is established that the European Parliament must ratify international agreements. In this case, the same Treaty foresees that the Parliament “shall be immediately and fully informed at all stages of the procedure” (art. 218 par. 10 TFEU). This should effectively prohibit the Commission (negotiating the agreements) and the Council (concluding the agreements) from being able to make excuses in order to not reveal all the information.

Indeed, the European Parliament has made reference to these provisions throughout the negotiations on SWIFT, ACTA and the access of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights. This initiative raised disconcert from the Council and Commission, who obviously realise how difficult it is to maintain two different regimes in the field of classified information depending on whether the negations of the agreements are conducted on the basis of Article 218 TFEU or on the basis of the competences in the field of security and defense (which are based on Article. 9 of Regulation 1049/01 and/or the internal organisation competence of the Council, Commission and security agencies). If in theory it is possible, although difficult, to differentiate between these two agreements at the European level, it turns into a “probation diabolica” to explain  to a third country why matters such as  the fight against terrorism may sometimes refer to an ordinary regime (article 218 TFEU) or to an extraordinary regime (art. 9 1049/01)

The process of re-negotiating the inter-institutional agreements concerning the European Parliament’s access to classified information is ongoing. A first draft agreement will be reviewed by the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament and a second one will take place between the European Parliament and the Council to modify the 2002 agreement applying Regulation 1049/01 (20).

The problem is that some expression of this agreement (not ratified yet) seem to extend the preventive consent to de-classify the document given by the author from the exceptions of defence and security issues to all the matters of competences of the European Union. Such an iron grip would put the European Parliament in a position leading to its abdication  (21) of the right/duty to exercise the democratic control foreseen by the treaty.

However, the issue remains undefined and contradicting signals are coming from the High Representative. This is important as the High Representative is about to adopt a declaration accompanying the decision which establishes the organisation and functioning of the European external service which “ (…) will be applied mutatis mutandis by the High Representative for agreements falling under her area of responsibility, where the consent of the Parliament is required. The European Parliament will be, in accordance with Article 218 (10) TFEU, immediately and fully informed at all stages of the procedure, including for agreements concluded in the area of CFSP.”

It remains to be seen whether the European institutions will be able to finally overcome the long-lasting inconsistencies of the Regulation 1049/01 by establishing a European matter also in the field of the state secrets or whether, by carrying on the current, judicially confusing paths, once again the task of clarification will be left to the Court.



(1) See the fundamental investigation of the Washington Post on the possible abuses of the documents’ classification from the USA administration since 9/11.

(2) See the current debate at the COPASIR concerning the revision of the Italian law on the “services” and the treatment of the state secret (L. 124/2007)

(3) Concept reaffirmed by the German Constitutional Court in several occasions (including 2009 with the famous Lisbon Urteil) the Union cannot gives itself different or wider competences than those granted by the Member State.

(4) As foreseen by the Member States’ constitutions and by the ECHR.

(5) This is an expression also used by article 207 of the “old” EC Treaty but that the Council has always interpreted as the conditions that allow the representatives of the Member States to change their negotiating positions in complete discretion according to circumstantial needs)

(6) This principle has been reaffirmed also recently by the Court of Justice

Case C‑64/05 P Kingdom of Sweden vs Commission of the European Communities (see: )

(7) In the case of a member State it could be requested to see applied its own national regime and in the case of a third country needs


(9) Strangely enough the Italian version of the Regulation 1049/01 only refers to the category of the “confidential” documents.

(10) It is “…public interest safeguards, namely:— public order, — safeguard of military matters — International relations, — financial, monetary or economy policy  of the Community or Member states

(11)See Council decision 2001/264/CE  19  march 2001 adopting internal security regulation OJ n°101,  11.04.2001 modified following the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty.

(12) The “considering” 15 of the regulation invited the Member states to respect in the name of the principle of loyal cooperation the classifications established by the European institutions so as to avoid leaks related to National security matters “ Even though it is neither the object nor the effect of this Regulation to amend national legislation on access to documents, it is nevertheless clear that, by virtue of the principle of loyal cooperation which governs relations between the institutions and the Member States, Member States should take care not to hamper the proper application of this Regulation and should respect the security rules of the institutions.

(13) European Classified Information  (EUCI)

(14) For obvious reasons and given the peculiar nature and constitutional mission of the European Parliament or the court of Justice.

(15) See as a last example the agreement between the EU and Liechtenstein concerning the security procedures for the Exchange of classified information

(16) Art. 3 of the above mentioned agreement establishes that  “the European Council, the Council of the European Union (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Council’), the General Secretariat of the Council, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the European External Action Service (hereinafter: ‘the EEAS’) and the European Commission. For the purposes of this Agreement, these institutions and entities shall be referred to as ‘the EU»

(17) Artt. 9-12 of the TEU in specific art. 10

(18) Artt.18-24 TFEU

(19). See for example the regime for the treatment of classified information foreseen by the Decision of the Council establishing Europol and the implementing measures concerning the exchange of information with third countries: These provisions, which entered into force in January 2010 should be interested on the basis of the regime before the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in virtue of the transitory provisions foreseen by protocol  n° 36.

(20) The text of the inter-institutional agreement EP-Council is available at:

(21) Obviously it would be only a de fact abdication given that the inter-institutional agreement cannot modify a juridical situation defined by a treaty. However, the signal is worrying as much as the stall of the revision of Regulation 1049/01 and the juridical vacuum under which the EU institutions (and agencies) are now operating, since they should have defined their own norms in the field of transparency/confidentiality on the basis of principles that still need to be defined after Lisbon.

(22) See in specific the declaration f the high represntative: ) “.. The results of the ongoing negotiations on the Framework Agreement between the European Parliament and the Commission on negotiations of international agreements will be applied mutatis mutandis by the HR for agreements falling under her area of responsibility, where the consent of the Parliament is required. The European Parliament will be, in accordance with Article 218 (10) TFEU, immediately and fully informed at all stages of the procedure, including for agreements concluded in the area of CFSP.. (…) 4. The present system of providing confidential information on CSDP missions and operations (through the IIA 2002 ESDP EP Special Committee) will be continued. The HR can also provide access to other documents in the CFSP area on a need to know basis to other MEPs, who, for classified documents, are duly security cleared in accordance with applicable rules, where such access is required for the exercise of their institutional function on the request of the AFET Chair, and, if needed, the EP President. The HR will, in this context, review and where necessary propose to adjust the existing provisions on access for Members of European Parliament to classified documents and information in the field of security and defence policy (2002 IIA ESDP). Pending this adjustment, the HR will decide on transitional measures that she deems necessary to grant duly designated and notified MEPs exercising an institutional function easier access to the above information..”

2 thoughts on “The European Union and State Secrets: a fully evolving institutional framework”

  1. Thanks for this article!

    It will be quite important to closely monitor the ongoing recast of Regulation 1049/2001 in order to make sure that we won’t get a European Union that will be more secretive than it is so far (and the draft proposal by the Commission was not very promising…)

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