Europe needs better map-based information to support its policies, especially on the environment. A new database designed to achieve this - known as INSPIRE - which could be in place by early 2009, was agreed late Tuesday evening in conciliation.
Parliament and the Council struck a deal which will enable data to be shared across the EU, without undermining high quality services in the Member States. INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the Community), a project put forward by the European Commission in July 2004, aims to pool and improve the standard of geographical data generated in the various EU Member States (such as satellite images, temperature records, rainfall levels) in order to improve the planning and implementation of Community policies in areas such as the environment, transport, energy and agriculture.
This should lead to better understanding of problems such as floods or air and water pollution, which recognize no national borders. After two readings by Parliament and Council under the co-decision procedure, the chief points of disagreement remaining between MEPs and EU governments were intellectual property rights, derogations to the sharing of spatial data and the financial viability of publicly owned bodies. All these points were settled at a conciliation meeting on 21 November, with the outcome being described as a "fantastic result" by Frieda Brepoels, who piloted the legislation through Parliament. "We had hoped for an agreement at first reading but meanwhile our proposal developed", she said.
Data protection, confidentiality and intellectual property rights
Parliament successfully insisted that the directive should not conflict with the provisions of the Aarhus Convention on access to environmental information nor with Directive 2003/4/EC by which the convention is implemented in the EU - a point stressed by the chair of the EP delegation to the Conciliation Committee, Alejo Vidal-Quadras. In this connection, the Council agreed to drop its amendment seeking to allow broad derogations to the application of the 2003 directive on grounds of confidentiality of statistics or of personal data, the wording of the amendment being judged too vague by MEPs. This decision was, according to the negotiators, one of the keys to reaching an agreement.
However, Member States will, for example, be able to restrict public access to network consultation services displaying panoramic views where there is a risk to international relations, public security or national defense. They will also be allowed to limit access to e-commerce services on a range of grounds (confidentiality of proceedings of public authorities; international relations, public security or national defense; confidentiality of commercial information; intellectual property rights; confidentiality of personal data; protection of any person who supplied the information requested on a voluntary basis; protection of the environment). The agreed text also states that INSPIRE does not affect the existence or ownership of public authorities' intellectual property rights.
Guaranteeing the financial viability of public services
At Parliament's insistence, the Member States will have to make available free of charge the services for discovering and, subject to certain specific conditions, viewing spatial data sets. However, because some Member States were concerned about the financial sustainability of their weather forecasting services, a derogation to the principle of free public access will allow the public authorities to levy charges "where such charges are securing the maintenance of spatial data sets and corresponding data services, especially in cases involving large volumes of frequently updated data". More generally, the question of ensuring the financial viability of public services for supplying spatial data was another key point of the agreement.
Under the compromise, Member States may allow public authorities which supply spatial data sets "to license them to, and/or require payment from, the public authorities or institutions and bodies of the Community" which use them. However, any such charges and licences "must be fully compatible with the general aim of facilitating the sharing of spatial data" and must "be kept to the minimum required to ensure the necessary quality and supply of spatial data sets and services together with a reasonable return on investment". Moreover, spatial data provided under Community legislation relating to the environment may not be subject to charging. (EP-Press)