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'EU risks quashing Swedish transparency'

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'EU risks quashing Swedish transparency'
Swedish Green Party MEP Carl Schlyter. File photo: TT
14:08 CET+01:00
New EU confidentiality rules risk undermining Sweden's constitutionally protected right to information, critics have warned. The government said the new framework has its benefits.

In Sweden, citizens can access information from the public sector without giving their name or purpose - which observers call a "pillar" of Swedish democracy. From January 1st, however, Swedish public institutions will be allowed not to give out information out if the issue involves another EU country. 

"One can refer to confidentiality in any question with an EU connection," said Fredrik Nejman, head of Sweden's Investigative Reporters Association (Föreningen grävande journalister - FGJ).

"For example, information about the public procurement of services," Nejman told The Local. "The risk is that (the EU rule) will undermine Sweden's right to information law (offentlighetsprincipen)."

In the FGJ magazine Scoop, Brussels correspondent Anders Liljeheden explained possible effects of the law.
 
"If, for example, the EU signs a fishing deal with Morocco and if (one) wanted information from Spain about European fishing in the occupied Western Sahara, Sweden would not be able to hand out the information without Spain's approval," Liljeheden explained.
 
The Swedish government  conceded that the nation's liberal access to public information at present could create tension with EU neighbours that have a less anchored tradition of transparency. 
 
"The problem is that we in some cases cannot say no to giving out information, despite our international deals obliging us to keep them secret," Justice Ministry spokesman Johan Lundmark told Scoop.
 
"We know that the country that gave us the information will become very upset if we pass it on."
 
At FGJ, Nejman added that Swedish citizens are often unaware of their right to access public records without giving their name or explaining what they want the information for. The law covers anything from court documents to the salaries of public servants. Public servants - from nurses to government aides - who become whistleblowers are also protected by law.

"Because the public isn't well aware of the law, it's up to journalists to make people aware of it," Nejman said, although he added it was too early to tell how the EU law would be interpreted on home turf.

"We can't predict what the practical effect will be, but it risks undermining Sweden's right to information law," Nejman said. "I know that in Great Britain, it's almost a rule of thumb to classify everything."

Nejman is not alone when it comes to worrying about the new EU regulation. Swedish Green Party MEP Carl Schlyter told the magazine Scoop that he was keeping a particular eye to confidentiality clauses included in big international deals, such as the EU-US free-trade agreement. He hinted it wasn't coincident that the EU confidentiality law goes into effect as Brussels negotiates trade with Washington, D.C 

"They don't want transparency because they know that it would increase the resistance to this kind of deal," Schlyter told Scoop. "And now they want to shut as many people out as possible by limiting the information available, even to elected representatives." 

Schlyter was critical of lobbying in Brussels.

"Companies write laws together with public servants behind the backs of elected politicians," he said. "We can hardly call that democracy."

The government said the EU law had its benefits. It allows Sweden not to amend its domestic transparency rules - while easing snags with foreign actors when it came to international deals with confidentiality clauses.
 
Critics remained wary and said the effects of the law on Swedish soil needed to be monitored.
 
"What has been simple in Sweden could become difficult," Nejman warned. "Offentlighetsprincipen is a pillar of democracy."
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