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The EU has long been a famously easy mark for those looking to pilfer supposedly secret documents. But anxiety is now coursing through Brussels that a technology upgrade will force journalists, politicians and lobbyists to find new pockets to pick.
The technology in the crosshairs is the clunkily named U32mail. The platform has long helped circulate internal memos and policy proposals to an array of officials and diplomats, giving them insight into the inner workings of the Council of the EU, the bloc’s top legislative body.
But the process has also created a sprawling network of people that nosy outsiders can pester for intel — and made it harder to know which officials might be helping them. Now, U32mail is on the chopping block, expected to be executed at the start of next year. In its place: CIxP, a more modern technology.
A major driver behind the swap, according to numerous diplomats and officials: journalists.
“You are one of the key problems,” said one diplomat, nodding to the high volume of private Council documents leaked to POLITICO.
The Council confirmed the change but declined to say whether leaking had played a role. “The main reason” for the update, a Council official said, “is to move to a more modern underlying technological infrastructure.”
It’s unclear exactly how the newer technology will operate. But it will likely change how those on the outskirts of the EU institutions hunt for information. Even before the update, national lawmakers — often responsible for actually implementing EU legislation — were grumbling over the Council’s secretive behavior, which sent them scouring for documents alongside reporters and influence peddlers.
“Despite some improvements, this lack of transparency remains the rule,” a group of national lawmakers wrote in June.
Documents are the coin of the realm
Currently, officials, diplomats and national lawmakers have two primary methods of viewing Council documents.
One is a “delegates portal” — a more up-to-date system that only lets people see documents they are directly working on. The other is U32mail, which has fewer restrictions and offers broader visibility.
The delegates portal was launched in 2015. Its goal was to offer access to documents “for specific communities of recipients,” according to a Council memo announcing its debut. The determining factor? “Direct involvement in the business of the working group in question or legitimate need-to-know for other reasons.”
That left many people on the outside looking in.
But U32mail continued to operate in parallel, even after the portal went live, offering a panoply of other windows people could try to sneak in through.
The platform has an inherent advantage for leak-seekers: It is a “push” system, meaning it automatically sends documents to officials in various countries, where the Council has little control over how the papers are handled. The delegates portal, conversely, requires delegates to “pull” a document from the vault, making it easier for the Council to notice who has actually peeked at the paper.
The setup left some frustrated, including national lawmakers.
While these lawmakers were given access to some Council documents, they were not necessarily allowed to see the reams of preparatory work produced inside the Council’s roughly 150 working parties, the highly specialized technical bodies that prepare EU legislation. The formal distribution system for national parliaments only pumped out documents to lawmakers after they had been made public.
To get at the private documents, national lawmakers usually have to go through their own governments, which do have more broad-based access to the Council’s closed-door deliberations. But of course, not every government has a great relationship with its own parliament.
That left the U32mail platform as a key resource for many lawmakers — just as it was for journalists and others.
Enter COSAC, officially the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union. The group brings together EU-focused national lawmakers and members of the European Parliament to semi-annually discuss common issues of concern.
Earlier this year, COSAC set up a working group to specifically examine national lawmakers’ role in EU decision-making. Among other things, the group probed whether they are getting the desired Council documents.
Their conclusion: Not really.
Part of the problem, they said in the June document, is that the Council straddles an awkward line as both a legislative and executive body. Essentially, the Council develops legislation but is composed of representatives from EU governments — not lawmakers.
That setup, the COSAC group argued, “complicates the political control that can be exercised over it,” they argued. And, they added, “this control is made difficult by the lack of transparency of the Council’s work.”
The group pushed for the EU to enshrine a right for certain members of national parliaments to have better access to the Council’s internal papers. The proposal will come up for discussion next week when COSAC gathers for its twice-a-year meeting.
Muckraking journalists and industry lobbyists, of course, don’t have such an official outlet for any similar grievances. They’ll simply have to better understand how the CIxP, or “Council Information Exchange Platform,” operates — and then find its weak points.
And, of course, wait for the inevitable leaks.
“With 27 member states, we can do all the changes we need, but there doesn’t exist a way to fully avoid leaks,” one diplomat lamented.