The European Ombudsman
Promoting openness and accountability in the European Union.
The Maastricht Treaty (1992, effective 1993) conferred upon any citizen of the European Union, or any natural or legal person residing in or having their registered office in a Member State, the right to apply to the European Ombudsman about maladministration by EU Institutions. The European Ombudsman cannot deal with complaints related to national, regional or local administrations, nor look into matters that are before a court or that have already been settled by a court.
The annual report which was produced following the election of the first European Ombudsman by the European Parliament in July 1995, stressed the importance, based on the experience of national ombudsmen, of avoiding a rigid definition of what it is that constitutes maladministration. In general terms however, this may be considered as administrative irregularities, unfairness, discrimination, abuse of power, failure to reply, refusal of information, and unnecessary delay.
Complaints brought to the European Ombudsman will often relate to alleged infringements of a citizen’s rights as enshrined in EU law by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. A core element of this Charter, as well as the Treaty of Lisbon, was to improve the connection between citizens and the EU. The European Ombudsman must therefore work to increase the awareness of its existence among EU citizens, both publicising the procedure for making a complaint and producing data on its achievements. The data published in its most recent annual report states that 2,442 complaints were received by the European Ombudsman in 2012, with 465 investigations opened in total —390 of which have since been closed. More than 50% of inquiries opened in 2012 concerned the European Commission (5% concerned the European Parliament). A report for 2011, published in 2012, regarding the overall rates of compliance by the EU institutions with the suggestions of the European Ombudsman boasted a figure of 82%. The EU Agencies performed best with a 100% compliance rate.
Each new Parliament elects an ombudsman for the duration of the parliamentary term and following the retirement in 2003 of Jacob Söderman —who was elected as the very first European Ombudsman in 1995— MEPs elected Prof. Nikiforos Diamandouros. On his retirement in October this year, Diamandouros was succeeded by Emily O’Reilly. Whilst the role of the European Ombudsman has undoubtedly evolved since its genesis, the goal which it seeks to achieve is quintessentially the same: to “encourage transparency and promote an administrative culture of service” and in so-doing “build trust through dialogue between citizens and the European Union, fostering the highest standards of behaviour in the Union's institutions”.
Since taking up her role, Ms. O’Reilly has been vocal in affirming her desire not only to deal with complaints, but to effect positive change within the administration itself. In meetings with José-Manuel Barroso (President of the European Commission) and Martin Schulz (President of the European Parliament) she said that the EU administration “has to serve as a role model when it comes to openness, accountability, and good administration in the Union. This is a key precondition for winning the trust of Europe's citizens. A lot has been done in the past, but there is no room for complacency”. Time to effect this positive change may indeed be short for Emily O’Reilly as she has less than a year before facing re-election by parliament for a five year term. As well as stating her intention to re-focus the resources at her disposal away from staff cases and towards systemic investigations, Ms. O’Reilly has indicated that the lobbying register will soon be made mandatory. The next two months will also see the publication of a much anticipated report by the European Ombudsman’s office on how the European Commission has dealt with conflicts of interest in the last three years.
Transparency is at the heart of gaining the trust of ordinary European citizens and it is only by augmenting this trust that citizens will desire to be more connected with the administration of their European Union. In raising awareness of its existence, the European Ombudsman must also continue to demonstrate its credibility as a force for good.
Stephen N. Rooney