On 20 October 2011, prof. Deirdre Curtin in her Inaugural Lecture entitled Top Secret Europe reflected on the question of what secrecy means and how it is actually regulated in the context of the European Union. Before a large audience of peers, colleagues, family and friends, she made a persuasive case that secrecy needs to be regulated at the European Union legislative level after an open policy debate. While questions of secrecy are not new, the phenomenon of government secrecy in the context of the EU, its nature, structure, categories and its multiple layers has been understudied. Prof. Curtin highlighted the substantial growth in secrecy regulation and practice.
After elaborating on the general lines in the relatively recent evolution of the EU as a political union that have made the issue of secrecy particularly salient, she offered a closer look at actors involved in the context of internal security. In what she coined a “secrecy web”, the Council stands as a sophisticated spider with agencies such as Europol in subservient positions. Furthermore, the rules on classification are adopted in secret as a matter of internal ‘organisation’. This led Curtin to warn against a culture of secrecy, particularly considering the extensive application of the principles of originator control and derivative classification.
What then is the role of executive secrecy in a democracy? A basic dilemma of accountability is that democracy requires publicity but that some democratic policies require secrecy. The general mechanism of mediation resolves in theory the conflict between democratic oversight and executive secrecy by having citizens delegate the task of oversight to the judiciary and to the legislature. In Europe, should the courts in Luxembourg for example be able to request access to classified information that is relevant to cases brought before them? At the other hand, it is clear that at the EU level the European Parliament (EP) is the only parliamentary forum to provide oversight over classified information produced and circulated in particular by security and intelligence agencies under the auspices of the EU. However, as the example of EP’s oversight over international agreements shows, it would be premature to assess how effectively the EP is actually maintaining oversight.
Finally, Curtin argued that in the future we need to treat the issue of secrecy regulation in and of itself seriously but at the same time narrow down what genuinely needs to be protected and move ‘deep’ secrets into shallower waters. Thus, secrecy needs to be regulated at the EU legislative level after an open policy debate (EU Secrecy Law) with provision for ‘shallow’ secrets.
The text of the Inaugural Lecture is available for download below.