The right to information – for the public and other stakeholders – plays a crucial role in promoting a range of important social values. Information has been described as the ‘oxygen of democracy’. It is for meaningful participation, an important tool in combating corruption and central to democratic accountability. A free two-way flow of information provides the foundation for healthy policy development, decision-making and project delivery. The right to access information held by public bodies is a fundamental human right, set out in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas” from institutions at the EU as well as the national level and thus applies to the EU’s house bank – the European Investment Bank (EIB).This is backed up by the Aarhus Convention which has been ratified by the European Union. Aarhus imposes on EU institutions not just obligations of disclosure and access to environmental information, but also of “early and effective” involvement of the public in plans and programmes relating to the environment, at a stage when all options are still open. Yet, for decades the EIB has remained a closed and non-transparent institution, responding mainly to its clients and disregarding both its duty of transparent and participatory decision-making as well as the value of information and views coming from stakeholders impacted by and/or interested in its actions.
This situation has, slowly, been improving. In 2006 the EIB organised its first-ever public consultation process for the review of its Public Disclosure Policy, which should be considered an important step. For many years previous, the EIB lagged behind other international financial institutions (IFIs) in terms of institutional transparency. The policy was also subsequently updated to the requirements of the regulation applying the Aarhus Convention on Access to Environmental Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice to EU institutions. The last revision of the EIB’s transparency policy dates February 20010
This means that today the EIB publishes in advance information on new projects, including environmental and social assessments (though unfortunately not for all of them). Some more information might be available upon request after project approval.
While the policy is improving, the practice of information disclosure from the EIB is progressing at a somewhat slower pace. The EIB retains the right to withhold information crucial to fully judging projects that it is planning to finance; the information released is not always made available in a timely fashion; and the extent of the information given remains insufficient.
The EIB’s lack of transparency is epitomised by the woeful level of disclosure surrounding many of the projects it supports. Even for projects where the EIB’s support amounts to hundreds of millions, after such a project’s approval the EIB’s website is still prone to publishing little more than a single-line description of the project, the amount sought and the sector and country in which it fits. Compared to IFI best practice, this suggests an almost embarrassing unwillingness to take seriously “the rights and needs of affected communities and other stakeholders.”
A major problem relates to the EIB’s neglect for public participation, while it also lacks clear requirements on how to consult with impacted communities. These practices are plainly inadequate under the EIB’s new legal obligations under Aarhus, and also under best project impact assessment practices, which encourage community ownership and participation in projects to minimise impacts and to improve productivity. Counterbalance expects the EIB to redress this situation and to live up to expectations as rapidly as possible.
Compounding things still further, while someone refused information can complain to the Secretary General of the EIB, the EIB lacks an independent complaint and appeal mechanism that could be used by individuals and/or communities impacted by its projects. Currently, due to NGO prodding, the EIB has begun working on the issue and the European Ombudsman recently announced a readiness to take on complaints not only from European citizens but also from those who wish to complain about the EIB’s ever-expanding operations outside EU borders.