Amendments to the Law on Government are an opportunity for the executive branch in Croatia to open up to citizens and to commit to greater transparency, but judging by the proposal sent for consultation, there will be no significant reforms.
That is the reason why Gong is listing its recommendations, inviting all citizens to participate in the consultation and insisting that political decisions concerning everyone be more transparent. This would ensure Government accountability towards all citizens. If the Government is open, citizens can participate more in public life, reducing room for corruption and ensuring better protection of citizen rights. If the government is open, it means that the citizens are not left in the dark.
This is an opportunity for the Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s Government to distance itself from bad democratic practices, such as announcing Government sessions two hours before its beginning, addressing the public exclusively at ad-hoc press conferences whenever it suits the Prime Minister, and inadequate regulation of special advisers.
It is well that the Government has finally decided, after three years, to give in to GRECO’s demands, announcing the regulation of the status of the special advisers to the Prime minister and Ministers, but this has not been fully approached. According to the Telegram news portal, the Prime Minister and ministers have as many as 31 special advisers, and it took the Government a month and a half to answer a journalist’s question about their compensation.
Back in 2019, GRECO recommended that the legal status, employment and obligations of special advisers be regulated, that their integrity be verified, that their names, functions and possible remuneration (for tasks performed for the Government) be made public, and that appropriate regulations on conflicts of interest and the use of confidential information be applied to them.
The Government is now finally proposing that information on special advisers be published on the Government and Ministries websites through a special form – prepared by the Government. However, instead of applying the same provisions of the Law on Conflict of Interest to the special advisers, due to the importance of their function in the executive branch, they will prove their impartiality and commitment to the public interest by signing a Declaration of Interests and Impartiality – again, prepared by the Government.
It is especially disputable for us in Gong that the provision from the Law on Government, according to which the Government may or may not publish decisions and conclusions, remains unchanged.
The proposed amendments to the Law on Government, published at the public consultation, do not concern the provisions on Government sessions either. Government sessions are usually held once a week, on a day determined by the Prime Minister. In principle, they are public, but the Government may decide to hold a session, that is, a discussion on certain issues on the agenda, without the public presence. The session agenda is usually published by the Government only a few hours before the beginning of the session, which does not leave enough preparation time for journalists who have the right to be present at the sessions. In addition, the Government may decide during the session to exclude journalists from the discussion of certain issues on the agenda.
We believe that the Croatian Government could follow the example of some positive European countries cases, in terms of session holding and public informing. In Estonia, for example, sessions are usually held on Thursdays at 10am, the agenda is confirmed by the Prime Minister the day before, and press conferences are held immediately after the session. In the Czech Republic, sessions are also announced the day before.
As for press conferences, they are not held regularly, on a predetermined day of the week. The last government that had regular weekly press conferences was that of Ivica Račan, when every Thursday, after a Government session, the Prime Minister or one of the Deputy Prime Ministers and ministers appeared before the press. Such a practice was abolished by Ivo Sanader, and after him it was not renewed by the Government of Zoran Milanović. We find a positive example of regular sessions and press conferences in the work of the Mayor of Zagreb Tomislav Tomašević, who appears before the media every Tuesday to inform the public about current events in the capital.
In addition to regular sessions, the Government of the Republic of Croatia also practices telephone sessions. The concept of telephone sessions has not been found in other European countries, and they are not provided for in the Law on the Government or the Rules of Procedure, nor is it regulated what types of decisions are made at telephone sessions. During 2021, a number of extremely important contracts and deals were concluded during telephone sessions, such as the agreement on the purchase of the Pfizer vaccine, changes to the decision on the exclusive economic zone and acceptance of amendments by coalition partners on the Pension Insurance Act, and the Croatian Chamber of Commerce.
Government sessions regularly have a part closed to the public, which excludes citizens from the process of making a number of important decisions. Some of the issues discussed at the publicly closed session part are personnel issues, proposals of positions and answers of the Republic of Croatia towards the institutions of the European Union and EU affairs in general.
The Government did not open these issues to public consultation in the proposed amendments to the Law. That is why Gong calls on the Government to show true political will and open up to the citizens from whom it has been ‘protected’ by police barricades on St. Mark’s Square for almost two years. St. Mark’s Square can only be reached through police stations, provided one has a good reason or has announced a protest there. It is time for St. Mark’s Square to finally open to the citizens. The issue of security should be addressed in a way that does not deny citizens physical access.
These are Gong’s recommendations for more open and transparent Government activities:
1. Open St. Mark’s Square to the citizens
For 532 days, or more than a year and a half, citizens have been denied access to key democratic institutions, the Government and Parliament, which are protected by police barricades, following the October 2020 attack on St. Mark’s Square. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia, any restriction of freedom or rights must be proportionate to the nature of the need for restriction in each individual case, so the question is whether such security measures unduly restrict the freedom of movement of citizens of the Republic of Croatia.
2. Announce Government sessions at least one day in advance together with the agenda announcement
As a rule, the Government announces the session agenda only a few hours before its beginning, which does not leave enough preparation time for journalists who have the right to be present at the sessions. In addition, although the Government publishes video and audio recordings of some sessions open to the public, which provides insight into the decision-making process, there are no minutes of sessions that would make it easier to search for individual items on the Government’s agenda.
3. Hold regular conferences for the public on a pre-determined day of the week
The willingness of politicians to be accountable to the public is a basic precondition for increasing citizens’ trust in the work of public authorities and their efficient operation. Without the trust of citizens in public authorities, there is no citizen and public participation in decision-making, which weakens the quality of adoption and implementation of regulations. Only an informed public can be an effective democratic mechanism of government control, and the task of institutions in mature democracies is to educate the public and provide as transparent information as possible about the work of public authorities.
4. Regulate telephone sessions through Law/Government Rules of Procedure
The concept of telephone sessions has not been found in other European countries, and they are not provided for in the Law on the Government or the Rules of Procedure, nor is it regulated what types of decisions are made at telephone sessions. For the telephone sessions, there is no previously established daily agenda, and the Government website issues a short notification that the telephone session was help after some time. During 2021, a number of extremely important contracts and deals were concluded during telephone sessions
5. Clearly list the types of decisions that can be discussed in closed session through the Government Rules of Procedure
The criteria according to which some items on the agenda are closed to the public, such as decisions on appointments and dismissals or regular reporting on the use of EU funds, are not clearly defined. This second point is particularly important given the frequent practice of presenting unofficial, unverified and often inaccurate estimates from various sources. At the same time, there is no doubt that the publication of updated and accurate data on the use of EU funds is in the public interest.
6. Open the discussions on European affairs to the public
We call on the Government of the Republic of Croatia to start publishing proposals for national positions on new EU laws and policies, before the discussion at the meetings of the Council of Ministers. This would give the public, but also members of Parliament, better control over European affairs and the influence that large business lobbies have on passing laws. Transparency is a key first step in tackling the excessive corporate influence seen in a number of Member States’ negotiations on new EU regulations and directives.
7. Regulate the status of special advisers to the Prime Minister and Ministers, in line with the GRECO recommendations
Special advisers to the Government should be subject to the Law on the Prevention of Conflicts of Interest, so that their actions in the public interest can be supervised by the Commission for the Prevention of Conflicts of Interest, a body independent of the Government. The proposal, according to which the Government would personally determine the content of the Declaration of Interests and Impartiality, which the advisers confirm by signing, to determine the absence of conflict of interest, cannot be universally applicable to any situation in which an individual advisor may find himself in a conflict of interest.