BRUSSELS — U.S. restrictions on access to documents and insistence on secrecy are undermining trust in trans-Atlantic trade talks and anti-terror data exchanges, the European Union's transparency watchdog said Wednesday.
Discussions between the EU and the U.S. to create a trade pact that would account for nearly half the global economy have dragged since their launch in 2013, with the issue of secrecy prompting growing concern in Europe.
"There is a little clash of cultures, yes," EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly told The Associated Press in an interview.
O'Reilly said some of the problems could have their roots in fears emanating from big scandals like the WikiLeaks cables, or the Edward Snowden revelations.
The motivation behind the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to create a market with common standards and regulations. The proposed trade pact touches on most aspects of commerce, from farming to health care to cosmetics.
O'Reilly is particularly concerned that the opaque nature of the negotiations is depriving people of information affecting their daily lives.
The EU Commission, which negotiates for the 28 member nations, is campaigning to have negotiating texts made public but anything that references the U.S. position has yet to make it into the public arena after a request from U.S. negotiators.
"I understand that these are trade negotiations and that people want to protect their negotiating positions," O'Reilly said. "But there needs to be transparency at the point of draft decisions."
O'Reilly recently walked away from a meeting on transparency with the U.S. ambassador even though the two have good personal contacts.
"He didn't get my role as European Ombudsman and I didn't get his not getting my role as Ombudsman," she said. "They weren't trusting EU institutions and I thought that was a problem."
The U.S. mission in Brussels did not immediately respond to an invitation to comment.
A major roadblock also stems from the U.S. Treasury's refusal to allow proper EU oversight of the agreement under which the United States tracks terrorist finances using personal data from Europe. The terror financing agreement tasks the EU's police agency Europol with supervising the way things are done on the European side and issuing regular reports on the process.
Recently, O'Reilly was denied access to a Europol report by the U.S. Treasury, prompting her to get lawyers involved.
"For the first time in its 20-year history, the European Ombudsman was denied its right under statute to inspect an EU institution document, even under the guarantee of full confidentiality," O'Reilly told EU lawmakers earlier this year. EU Parliament lawyers are now dealing with it.
At her office in Brussels, the Ombudsman wonders aloud how it is that U.S. authorities continue to erect roadblocks when it comes to openness and transparency.
"We're in a new era. The younger generation won't understand the lack of transparency. They won't tolerate it," she said.