Press release: 30 April 2020

EU Ombudsman deplores Council’s disregard for democracy following lawyers’ complaint

The European Ombudsman has deplored the Council of the EU’s refusal to publish information on how it sets fishing catch limits, following a complaint from environmental legal charity ClientEarth.

In a decision given yesterday, the EU watchdog confirmed that the Council had breached EU transparency rules, and asked the institution to open its decision-making procedure to public scrutiny.

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said: “This is disappointing. Furthermore, it suggests the Council has failed fully to grasp the critical link between democracy and the transparency of decision-making regarding matters that have a significant impact on the wider public. This is all the more important when the decision-making relates to the protection of the environment. The Council’s position appears to be that a key democratic standard – legislative transparency – must be sacrificed for what it considers to be the greater good of achieving a consensus on a political issue.”

ClientEarth Environmental democracy lawyer Anne Friel said:

“We are glad that the Ombudsman is taking a stance against the Council’s lack of transparency as we have been calling for an end to this culture of secrecy for many years.

“But we regret that despite taking crucial decisions for the future of our planet, the Council of the EU still refuses to open its decision-making to public scrutiny, dubiously claiming that it would delay or influence the process.

“Every year, some member states push for fishing catch limits above scientific advice, undermining the sustainability of our ocean and fisheries sector without being held accountable. As a result, the European Union has failed to meet the 2020 deadline to end overfishing.

“We call on the Council to urgently implement the recommendations of the Ombudsman and increase transparency to make sure the public can participate in the decision making.”

Last year, ClientEarth lodged a complaint against the Council after many years of catch limits set above the scientific advice for sustainable fishing.

Lawyers argued that the current Council decision-making process, which keeps member state positions secret, prevents public scrutiny and enables some governments to systematically push for unsustainable fishing limits without being held accountable for it.

Following the complaint, the Ombudsman demanded the Council “proactively publish” all relevant documents while the decision-making process is ongoing, so that EU citizens and civil society can engage with decision-makers and hold them to account before the fishing opportunities, or Total Allowed Catches (TACs) are adopted definitively.

But the Council disregarded these recommendations and refused to publish governments’ negotiating positions, preventing the public from exercising their right to participate in the decision-making procedure. This allowed fisheries ministers to adopt TACs that breach the EU’s legal obligation to end overfishing by 2020.


About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.