O'Reilly to take EU ombudsman's office to 'the next level'

In a hearing on the appointment of the European ombudsman, the incumbent Emily O'Reilly outlined her strategy and objectives to parliament's committee on petitions (PETI).

By James O'Brien

04 Dec 2014

O'Reilly is the first woman to hold the position of European ombudsman and this is the first occasion that there is only one declared candidate for the post. Parliament will vote by secret ballot on a new ombudsman on 16 December.

The ombudsman told MEPs she wants to take the office to "the next level and make sure it continues to succeed and thrive".

She said, "The people of Europe now demand not just the pretty words of treaties and charters but their day-to-day translation into policies and actions that speak to the reality of their lives".

The ombudsman outlined her hope that the EU institutions live up to the expectations they have set themselves and "the past year has been about putting those words into actions".

Her strategy is to combine three objectives – ensure relevance, increase visibility and achieve a greater impact. This will be attained through the introduction of a modern complaint management system and greater use of the 'own-initiative' power of the office, whereby an enquiry can be launched without having received a complaint.

O'Reilly cited the release of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) negotiating documents as one of her successes, as well as an invitation from the European central bank to oversee the ethics policy it is developing.

O'Reilly expressed concern that "the EU administration has not yet achieved the high levels of legitimacy which it should, in the eyes of many Europeans" and said, "this is why it is so important for [it] to not only be of the highest possible quality but the gold standard in ethics, transparency, accountability and effectiveness".

In response to EPP PETI committee member, Jarosław Wałęsa, O'Reilly said the release of documents in relation to TTIP were a key test as to whether the commission's attitude has really changed in relation to transparency. She informed the committee that her office received 300 written complaints and 6000 emails in relation to TTIP.

She added that she was not happy with the current rate of compliance by EU institutions and bodies with findings issued by the ombudsman's office, which is approximately 80 per cent.

O'Reilly acknowledged Wałęsa 's concerns regarding the accountability of the Troika but highlighted that her mandate does not extend to the international monetary fund (IMF). However, she will examine any complaints received but "it would be stupid and inappropriate" to promise any actions she could not deliver upon.

"The people of Europe now demand not just the pretty words of treaties and charters but their day to day translation into policies and actions that speak to the reality of their lives" - Emily O'Reilly

Beatriz Becerra Basterrechea, an ALDE member of the PETI committee, highlighted the need for cooperation with first vice president of the commission Frans Timmermans, whose portfolio includes citizenship.

O'Reilly agreed and added that blockages between the commission and her office need to be removed, one of which she identified as a reluctance to allow officials, below the most senior levels, to cooperate with her office.

Margrete Auken, a Greens/EFA member of the PETI committee, said she would prefer a regulation on transparency over the current guidelines. She also expressed concern that a misguided notion exists that a declaration of interests absolved someone of a conflict of interest, merely by making a public declaration.

Auken added that O'Reilly is the first ombudsman to have the power to criticise the parliament and that she has "a duty" to do so.

The ombudsman said she detected a "lack of political will or a coalition of forces" to push forward with laws in the area of public administration in the last parliament and was dependent on "the will of parliament and particular commissioners" in proceeding.

GUE/NGL MEP Matt Carthy again raised the issue of TTIP, highlighting that a petition objecting to the ISDS mechanism within the agreement is close to the required one million signatures needed under the European citizen's initiative.

A number of parliamentarians expressed the view that the commission was too quick to dismiss issues raised under the citizens' initiative on legal grounds.

The ombudsman said that if "a million people go to the bother of signing a petition it must be taken very seriously […] and not just written off in a certain period of time".

In her concluding remarks, O'Reilly said, "justice delayed was justice denied" and outlined her hope that the work of her office would be made faster and more efficient.  

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the ombudsman's office, which is charged with investigating cases of maladministration by EU bodies or institutions. The current ombudsman was elected in July 2013, following the retirement of Nikiforos Diamandouros.


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