Respect for fundamental rights in EU spending 'paramount'

The European ombudsman is investigating the protection of fundamental rights in the EU's cohesion policy, writes Emily O'Reilly

By Emily O'Reilly

26 May 2014

The European Union's cohesion policy is a key instrument in helping create economic growth and jobs, tackling climate change and energy dependence, and reducing poverty and social exclusion. It is supposed to narrow national and regional development disparities across the EU. Overall, cohesion funding for 2014-2020 amounts to more than €350bn, that is, over a third of the EU's budget for that period. The European structural and investment funds are managed jointly by the commission and the member states.

In recent years, my office has received many complaints about the way in which cohesion policy is applied, particularly with regard to the application of the charter of fundamental rights. Small businesses, for example, highlighted problems they encountered when accessing EU funds, and applicants for EU projects alleged discrimination. I, therefore, opened an investigation on my own initiative into the commission's role in ensuring that EU cohesion funding is used in ways that comply with the charter.

"Wherever EU money is spent, it is paramount, for the EU's credibility, that fundamental rights are respected"

Wherever EU money is spent, it is paramount, for the EU's credibility, that fundamental rights are respected. Some of the European structural and investment funds are earmarked for the benefit of the most vulnerable members of society. But with some complaints suggesting, for example, that EU money is being used to 'institutionalise' persons with disabilities, rather than to help them integrate into society, it is imperative that the commission ensures the matter is investigated and the situation redressed.

At the beginning of this year, the commission adopted new legislation to govern the current cohesion programmes. This legislation renders the cohesion policy significantly clearer and more efficient, but it does not specify how the EU and national levels are to apply the charter when implementing programmes.

I also note that nothing in the new regulation appears to authorise the commission to penalise member states which do not to comply with fundamental rights. Moreover, it seems that the commission cannot suspend funding, or require a member state to reimburse funds spent in breach of fundamental rights.

I, therefore, asked the commission a detailed set of questions to find out how it ensures that its partners in the Member States respect fundamental rights, how it imposes sanctions when necessary, and how complaints are being dealt with. I have asked the commission to reply to my questions by 30 September 2014 here.

Since EU cohesion policy is based on shared management and reliance on member states, I have also informed my colleagues within the European network of ombudsmen about this investigation. I invited them to send me their observations, based on their experience in handling complaints relating to fundamental rights. Depending on the replies I receive, I may also give other interested persons or organisations the opportunity to make observations.

When I took office as European ombudsman in October 2013, I announced that I would use my own initiative power to investigate systemic problems in the EU administration more strategically. To this end, I appointed an internal coordinator for own-initiative inquiries. The cohesion policy investigation is one of the first in a series of strategic own-initiative inquiries. Another inquiry concerns the composition and transparency of the hundreds of expert groups on whose advice the commission relies when drawing up legislation and policy. There will be more in the coming months. All of them will have the ultimate aim of ensuring that the EU administration adheres to the highest standards which in turn is key in securing citizens' trust in the EU.


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