Fact-checking the European Commission’s press conference on travel expenses
August 16, 2017 10:30 A.M
Madrid, Spain (TDN)
On 9 August, European Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva faced a barrage of questions from journalists about the European Commissioners’ travel expenses, after two months of detailed data was disclosed following a three-year campaign by Access Info Europe.
Access Info Europe has fact-checked some of Andreeva’s key statements.
1. “We do publish mission expenses whenever we are asked to provide information.”
FALSE: The European Commission has been hugely resistant to publishing this information. After a long campaign by Access Info and 120 requesters from around Europe who submitted, in total, over 200 requests, we have managed to obtain only two months of data from 2016 and a handful of travel expenses from previous years. This is the very first time such detailed information has been disclosed.
2. “You have the whole budget of the European Union that contains a section with administrative expenses – Heading 5 – that is online available to you, how much money we spend.”
TRUE: The European Commission does publish an overall figure for mission expenses, which is the total amount found in the EU budget line. You can’t get any details on what the money was spent on from this.
3. “… every access to documents request is handled on its own merits, on a case-by-case basis, and then we decide what information to provide.”
FALSE: The European Commission did not handle the 189 requests on a case-by-case basis. Rather, the Commission refused to register 152 of the requests, did not process 188 of the requests, and failed to respond to 51 appeals. The Commission then lumped all the requests into one, wrongly attributed them to a single requester – Access Info Europe – and then said it would be too much work to provide all the information. Indeed, the Commission explicitly stated that it “does not intend to send individual communications on the handling of the requests to the applicants,” refusing to acknowledge these requests were filed separately by individual citizens on their own initiative.
4. “We communicate very transparently on all the missions that Commissioners are carrying out. (…) When it comes to actual details, every mission is made available to you …”
PARTIALLY: The Commission is transparent about events and missions, publicising where and when these take place. The Commission does not make transparent how much these missions cost, per trip.
5. “We are one of the most transparent administrations in the world”
FALSE: Difficult claim to fact check but we note that when it comes to travel expenses of Ministers and senior officials, the EU is not one of the most transparent administrations, not even in Europe.
6. “I do not think it’s possible to, on a case-by-case basis, publish all the mission expenses for everyone travelling … there are also proportionality rules, and the Court of Justice [of the European Union] has held that an access to documents request need to be proportionate to the workload they entail.”
TRUE: There are rules and jurisprudence around proportionality of requests and the burden to answer. They must be applied to each individual request.
7. “…with regards to the proportionality: of course it entails work if you have to list how many people travel for a delegation, what a normal commercial airplane price would have been unless you charter an airplane… So of course there is work to be done to compile these things and make them available in a manner that responds to the actual access to documents request.”
FALSE: The Spokesperson seems here not to know the details of the EU’s access to documents rules. There is a right to request actual documents (not information) so there is no need to do extra work, simply removing personal or sensitive data and providing the documents. That was done in this case but only for a part of the documents.
In this case, all that each of the 189 requests asked for were a relatively small number of documents (not more than 10 per request) with no need for calculations or further information that would entail extra work. If the press service needs to explain the documents to journalists or add relevant context, as was done in this press conference, that is a separate matter, is part of the Commission’s duties when it comes to assisting the press, and may never be included in time calculations of requests made by citizens.
8. Referring to Junker’s €27,000 air taxi: “This is an incomplete amount that was there published because this is obviously the amount of an entire mission [to Rome]”
FALSE: The amount was based on a travel claim form submitted in Jean Claude Junker’s name; nothing on the document provided indicates that it was for an entire mission, nor that nine people were travelling with him.
9. “It’s in the interest to find a balanced solution to every request and at the same time be transparent by publishing what our Commissioners are doing.”
FALSE: The EU’s access to documents rules are quite clear that each request for documents from a citizen or EU resident must be handled on its own merits. This is a right set out in Article 15 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. This principle of openness is further set out in Regulation 1049/2001 which makes clear that “This Regulation shall apply to all documents held by an institution … in all areas of activity of the European Union.” Only if a document would cause a damage to a particular interest (such as privacy) may it be partially or full denied. In this case access has been denied without properly applying that test to each of 189 requests for documents.
10. “We are not refusing anything; on the contrary, we are publishing everything that is happening, where our Commissioners are travelling.”
TRUE: The Commission is transparent about events and missions, publicising where and when these take place.
FALSE: The Commission is not publishing everything: the costs of travel for each mission are not available. Nor are the precise amounts spent on hospitality.
11. “And that is why, on this case, we have provided all the information broken down; and also previously, I would like to stress, of course we have provided information when it comes to access to documents requests.”
FALSE: The Commission has not provided all information requested, as it has chosen only to disclose two months’ worth of expenses when all 2016 had been requested.
12.“We are following the rules; they are very clear rules on access to documents requests and we have followed this and thereby provided information.”
FALSE: The Commission has refused to register 152 of the requests, has not processed 188 of the requests, and has failed to respond to 51 appeals, in flagrant breach of the EU’s access to documents obligation to register and process all requests.
13. “And also draw your attention to the fact that the requests were made between the 25 of January 2017 and the 28 of February 2017. We replied on 20 July, so I think that for 196 groups requests that was actually quite good; we provided the information in line with the rules.”
Note: For sake of accuracy, requests were filed between the 25 and 28 January 2017.
FALSE: The EU rules require answers within 15 working days, with possible extension by another 15 working days in case of complex requests. These documents were provided six months after the requests were submitted, which is a serious breach of the time limits set down by law. Indeed, by the time the answer came, 53 of the requesters had already complained to the European Ombudsman about numerous violations of their rights, including the timeframes.