EU administration now 'more transparent and citizen-friendly', says former ombudsman

Nikiforos Diamandouros looks back on his 10 years as European ombudsman.

By Nikiforos Diamandouros

07 Oct 2013

After having served for 10 years as European ombudsman, I now return to my home country, Greece. The time has come for me to look beyond my public life at the European Union level, to return to my academic work, and to become an active private citizen once again.

My successor is the former Irish ombudsman Emily O'Reilly. I am delighted to have such a highly qualified, experienced, dedicated, and respected successor. I trust that she will continue to lead the institutions along the path leading towards a more open and accountable EU administration. I am persuaded that she will further enhance the European ombudsman's privileged relationship with the European parliament.

Over the last decade, my institution dealt with more than 30,000 complaints and opened almost 3500 investigations into alleged maladministration by the EU institutions.

During the same period, the EU administration has become a lot more transparent and citizen-friendly. The European ombudsman has arguably contributed to this progress in the administrative culture of the EU civil service. However, there is always room for improvement, especially when it comes to enhancing the capacity of the EU institutions to be proactive in promoting a culture of service towards citizens.

If I could highlight three areas in which the ombudsman achieved tangible results in improving the quality of the EU administration, I would pick transparency, citizens' rights and ethical standards.

Transparency-related complaints have always been at the top of the ombudsman's complaints list. They are, however, decreasing from the peak year of 2008, which saw 36 per cent of complaints alleging lack of transparency, to 21.5 per cent in 2012. This is a clear sign that the EU institutions have done a lot to become more transparent. To give you one example: several ombudsman recommendations led the European medicines agency in London to overhaul its transparency policy concerning access to medical data, such as adverse reaction reports and clinical trials. More transparency in the field of public health is key for European citizens.

"Over the years, I have repeatedly proposed to establish information officers and citizen-friendly online registers of documents in the EU institutions to ensure that the citizens' right of access to EU documents is smoothly implemented"

Don't get me wrong, the ombudsman does not promote unconditional transparency. There are indeed cases where secrecy is justified and where I found in favour of the institution complained against. Overall, however, I believe that we have not yet succeeded in convincing all civil servants and institutions that transparency is the norm and secrecy the exception. Achieving that cultural change and thus creating an open and accountable EU administration is key to building citizens' trust in the European Union. Over the years, I have repeatedly proposed to establish information officers and citizen-friendly online registers of documents in the EU institutions to ensure that the citizens' right of access to EU documents is smoothly implemented. A lot still remains to be done in this respect. Last but not least, I was involved in the reform of the regulation on access to documents. This sadly appears to have been put on ice. I can only appeal to all parties involved that whatever compromise emerges, it should ensure that citizens enjoy more rather than fewer rights on access to documents.

Since the Lisbon treaty entered into force and the charter of fundamental rights became legally binding in 2009, the ombudsman has received an increasing number of complaints in the area of citizens' rights. They concern, for example, the European citizens' initiative, the institutions' obligation to conduct an open and regular dialogue with civil society, and other ways of enhancing citizens' participation, including public consultations. On the basis of a complaint from the European humanist federation, I asked the commission to establish clear rules about its dialogue with civil society. Furthermore, I called on the commission to publish its public consultations in all EU languages, since doing so is key to citizens' participation in the EU. Regrettably, the commission has so far refused to follow this recommendation.

In recent years, I have received an increasing number of "ethics" related complaints, concerning, for example, conflicts of interest, "revolving doors" cases, and ethical committees. In one case, I called on the European food safety authority to strengthen its procedures in order to avoid the risk of conflicts of interest in "revolving doors" cases. In another, I concluded that European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's membership of the Group of 30 does not undermine the independence of the ECB. And I recently opened several new cases into alleged conflicts of interest in the European commission. These cases are currently ongoing.

During my time in office, I actively promoted the highest ethical standards in the EU administration, for example, through the publication of public service principles for EU staff. The five principles comprise: commitment to the EU and its citizens, integrity, objectivity, respect for others, and transparency. They have received very positive reactions from the EU institutions.