Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) and his staff are very resourceful when it comes to refusing to provide information. The organization Transparency Germany has experienced this on several occasions in recent years: within an international association of the same name, it is committed to the fight against corruption and other abuses. Transparency Germany has asked the ministry for all kinds of information about the diesel scandal at Volkswagen and other automakers. After years of litigation in the courts, 4,228 partly blacked out, partly white, meaning empty and mostly unimportant pages were received, said transparency boss Hartmut Bäumer.
At a press conference on Thursday, Bäumer presented numerous dossiers in which are noted the objections with which Scheuer’s ministry refused to submit documents. This would “have harmful effects on international relations”; these are ongoing proceedings; or business and commercial secrets of companies. The ministry even claimed the “intellectual property rights” of those affected, and more. The folks at Scheuer have listed much of what the Freedom of Information Act (IFG) has to offer in fending off claims against the files. The IFG, which was set up at the federal level in 2005 by the SPD and the Greens with partial support from the FDP, actually aims to create transparency.
There are now freedom of information laws in almost all federal states. Citizens have the right to inspect the records of authorities and ministries. However, these laws contain many exceptions that government agencies refer to over and over again. Bäumer therefore calls for a new IFG, which transforms the “debt” of people’s documents into a “debt” of governments and authorities. The state must “proactively” publish certain documents. Otherwise, access to information must also be facilitated.
So far, transparency is not far off, especially when it comes to the tangible financial interests of companies. They can claim corporate and business secrets and thus defend themselves against the disclosure of government documents to curious questioners. What Volkswagen is doing in particular. According to authorities, the VW Group has manipulated the emission controls of several million diesel vehicles. And then sold the dirt extractors to its customers as clean cars. When Öko-Verband Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) announced it was set to receive Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) files on the VW case in late 2020, the automaker took legal action against him.
The scope to undermine the spirit of the IFG is great
Too much transparency can cost businesses dearly. Among other things, when clients sue for damages for alleged or actual violations of the regulations. Of course, no company publicly declares that it wants to prevent disclosure so that its own clients do not receive cases and arguments for a successful lawsuit. On the contrary, internal technical details are mentioned, for example, which can be found in official files and which must be protected from competition. The potential for authorities, ministries and businesses to undermine the spirit of IFG is great.
From 2017 to 2020, the Scheuer ministry spent nearly 5.8 million euros on law firms that handled requests for access to files under the IFG and the Environmental Information Act ( UIG) of similar structure. The ministry alone cost around 300,000 euros to largely push back Transparency Germany’s claims over documents on the diesel scandal, said the head of Transparency Bäumer. He accuses Minister Scheuer of squandering taxpayers’ money.
The Department of Transport disagrees. We are legally obliged to verify exactly what information could be disclosed. And what weighs more: “The understandable need for public information or the legal right of companies to protect company and trade secrets. Companies have repeatedly fought against the disclosure of documents, according to the ministry. In a very specific case, these are interns from the Stuttgart-based Daimler automotive company. The Stuttgart public prosecutor’s office is investigating suspicions that employees of the Federal Ministry of Transport and the Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) have disclosed Daimler’s trade secrets.
However, it’s not up to business when governments are opaque. In the VW case, the Berlin Administrative Court asked the Ministry of Transport for information on “how the documents had been specifically sought so far”. The judiciary first had to put Scheuer’s house on its guard.
Greenpeace received the dates, but nothing more
The environmental organization Greenpeace has had some bad experiences, most recently with the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and CDU / CSU candidate for Chancellor Armin Laschet. Greenpeace wanted to know when country manager Laschet met with representatives of the energy company RWE from 2018 to 2020. And what was noted at the Laschet State Chancellery, i.e. at the seat of government. The environmental organization wanted to study RWE and Laschet’s climate-damaging coal policy from their perspective. Greenpeace received the dates, but nothing more.
The seat of government in Laschet spoke of the “confidentiality of the deliberations of the State Chancellery”. Greenpeace’s reference to transparency when it comes to issues such as structural change and the climate was not enough for the State Chancellery. Greenpeace is also calling for an in-depth reform of the IFG and a new way of thinking in offices. Requests for documents are “in the view of many authorities almost something like an immoral request or an assault.” A “real cultural change towards natural transparency” is unfortunately still pending, believes Manfred Redelfs of the Greenpeace research office.