* EU exec must explain when it blocks access to documents
* Case relates to 1999 veto on MyTravel, First Choice merger
* Court overturned EU veto in 2002 but backs document ban
* Sweden appealed against court verdict
* Ruling could force EU Commission to be more transparent
BRUSSELS, July 21 (Reuters) - The European Commission was wrong to block access to documents relating to a merger case six years ago, Europe’s highest court said on Thursday, in a ruling that will force the EU executive to be more open about its decision-making.
The verdict from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) partially overturned a 2008 ruling by Europe’s second highest court, which had backed the Commission’s refusal to allow British travel group MyTravel access to a report on its planned merger with rival First Choice.
“In order to justify its refusal, the Commission must set out the specific reasons supporting the conclusion that their disclosure would seriously undermine the decision-making process of the institution and the protection of legal advice,” the ECJ said.
“In its decisions, the Commission misapplied both the exception for protecting its decision-making process and the exception for protecting legal advice,” the Luxembourg-based court said.
The Commission blocked in 1999 the planned merger of MyTravel, then called Airtours, with First Choice. The companies appealed to the EU’s General Court, which for the first time ever annulled the regulator’s veto on a merger.
MyTravel, now a part of Thomas Cook , tried to seek access to a Commission report on the implications of the court ruling on EU merger processes, but was rebuffed by the regulator and the General Court, which is the second highest in the EU.
Sweden, an advocate of more public access to documents, appealed against that decision.
Stung by criticism of the Commission’s antitrust powers and tough policy of imposing fines, EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia has in recent months taken measures to ensure more transparent processes and to increase the rights of parties in competition cases.
(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee, editing by Rex Merrifield and Elaine Hardcastle)