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Juncker ignored EU watchdog's advice over Brexit talks transparency, letters reveal

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker with the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (Getty)

EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker dismissed calls from the bloc’s official watchdog to make Brexit talks more transparent, according to letters seen by Yahoo Finance UK.

The European commission vowed to “ensure a maximum level of transparency during the whole of the negotiating process” when talks got underway in June 2017.

However, correspondence between Juncker and European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly suggests the commission has fallen short of its stated aim.

In a letter sent to Juncker last year, O’Reilly wrote: “While welcoming the strong commitment of the commission to transparency, I would be grateful if you could reflect on ways to do even more in terms of informing EU citizens.”

The Irish former journalist called on the commission to regularly publish details of meetings held by all members of its Brexit task force, rather than solely those of chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

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She specifically said the activities of Barnier’s influential deputy, Sabine Weyand, should be listed online.

The ombudsman also called on the commission to “provide more context on the meetings by publishing any or all of the following in relation to meetings with organisations and self‐employed individuals: participant lists, agendas, minutes or other documents exchanged during the meetings.”

O’Reilly noted that this would go beyond normal commission procedure but wrote: “I urge the commission to make an exception in this case given the specific commitment to a maximum level of transparency extending to the entire taskforce.”

None of those recommendations have since been implemented by the commission.

Juncker waved away scrutiny of Weyand’s activities in his reply to O’Reilly, saying they were “mainly of an institutional nature.”

The EU’s deputy chief Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand (Getty)

He pointed out that details of meetings held by Weyand and other task force members had been published in response to a freedom of information request, but was silent on O’Reilly’s call to publish the details routinely on the task force website.

“Minutes of meetings cannot be published while negotiations are ongoing,” he added.

“Moreover, such meeting reports may contain sensitive information and commercial data, as well as personal data, disclosure of which is subject to exceptions.”

Rather than acting on the ombudsman’s recommendations to make Brexit talks more transparent, the commission subsequently increased the secrecy around negotiations through a concept they called “the tunnel.”

Weyand convinced fellow EU officials that talks should be taken out of the public eye in order to minimise controversies at the crucial final stage, according to the Guardian. 

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It meant that no details of her regular meetings with Olly Robbins, the prime minister’s Brexit advisor, were made public – flouting the ombudsman’s recommendations.

The commission hasn’t published an agenda for Brexit negotiations since September 5 last year.

When Yahoo Finance UK asked for basic details of these meetings, the commission’s chief spokesperson told us only that officials were in “continuous talks”.

“I think our commitment to transparency is beyond any doubt,” he said.

The UK government’s commitment to Brexit transparency has also come under scrutiny this week after it emerged the departments involved in negotiations are most likely to reject freedom of information requests.