The European Commission is taking Estonia to the European Court of Justice over the systems it has in place for public access to environmental information. The Commission submitted a report to Estonia in April 2013 explaining what it believed to be shortcomings in the country’s legislation and procedures. The Commission believes these issues have not yet been rectified and has therefore decided to bring the matter to a higher authority.
EU laws created to achieve the standards of the Aarhus Convention state that citizens are entitled to information about the state of their environment and the holders of that information are obliged to make it available. This is a vital process in the quest for transparency on environmental issues. It is believed that these laws will engender greater public participation in the discourse on the environment by making the necessary information readily available.
Some of the information that should be made available includes that relating to the current state of the environment, information on policies that may affect the environment and data relating to health and safety when it could be affected by environmental conditions.
So, how has Estonia supposedly breached these laws? There are two main areas of contention. Firstly, EU law states that there should be a process for the resolution of disputes over access to information whereby the public interest for access to the information is weighed against the holder’s reasons for withholding it. The Commission claims this mechanism is not present in Estonian law. Secondly, when requests are refused because the material is still being created, the name of the body completing the material and the estimated time to completion should be disclosed. Again, the Commission claims this is not present in Estonian law.
Transparency about the environment is hugely important and any sense of a failure to allow the disclosure of such information can raise some awkward questions. Estonia has a complicated history when it comes to environmental issues. On the one hand are innovations such as the comprehensive electric car network. On the other the county still has a heavy reliance on shale gas. Overall the state has made substantial investment in green and environmental initiatives, so why these problems with disclosure?
There are obviously many possible reasons to explain why Estonia has failed to meet these criteria and of course there is a chance that the High Court will reject the Commission’s claims. However the fact the Commission has even contemplated the action can give the impression Estonia has something to hide. It is wrong to assume that this is the case but it is an awkward question that could have been avoided.