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EU institutions must meet ‘gold standard’ – says new ombudsman

Emily O’Reilly, freshly installed as the European Ombudsman, sets our her visions and priorities for the years ahead

I have come to the European Ombudsman’s office at a particularly challenging time. Many European countries are faced with severe economic and social problems and struggle to re-establish their competitiveness, to reduce their public debts, and to diminish their unemployment rates. In these times of crisis, citizens continue to lose trust not only in their own governments but also in the European Union’s ability to find answers to these burning issues. Many feel their voice simply does not count.

One of our key tasks is to help solve citizens’ problems with the union. The complaints I receive range from lack of transparency in the EU institutions, such as the refusal to disclose documents, to conflicts of interest or problems with supranational projects and programmes. If we want citizens to regain trust then it is key for the EU institutions to adhere to gold standards when it comes to efficiency, transparency, ethical behaviour, and accountability.

One of my priorities is, therefore, to highlight citizens’ concerns and help bridge the gap that separates them from the institutions. In order to do this, I need to raise the visibility of the European Ombudsman’s work and to overhaul the internal structures and complaint-handling processes – with a view to bringing about efficiency gains for the benefit of the public. Furthermore, people have the right to expect that the ombudsman acts with independence, integrity, and fairness at all times. To meet those expectations, we intend to resolutely tackle maladministration within the union while closely cooperating with the European Parliament and the other EU institutions.

As regards increased visibility, we want to highlight those cases that resonate with the greatest number of citizens in order to attract others of major systemic importance. It is also vital to increase public awareness of the ombudsman by proactively engaging in online media and public discussions. I shall work directly with members of the European Parliament to publicise the office’s work by disseminating case digests and establishing direct communication links.

We also plan to introduce strategic changes to our case handling. For example, the office spends quite a lot of time on cases submitted by EU staff. I do not think that dealing with a large part of these cases is the function that was intended for the office of the ombudsman. The EU institutions should, through proper internal complaint mechanisms, handle these cases themselves – unless they concern fundamental rights infringements or other systemic problems. I want instead to focus the resources and the skills of the staff here on work that really matters to citizens; by bringing together a team to carry out own-initiative and systemic investigations on key issues.

To give an example, we just submitted a special report to the European Parliament about the EU agency Frontex. It coordinates member states cooperation at Europe’s external borders. Frontex refused to accept my recommendation to establish a complaints mechanism for migrants and other persons affected by human rights infringements at EU borders. Against the backdrop of the Lampedusa tragedy and other recent humanitarian catastrophes, it is vital that Frontex deal directly with complaints from immigrants and other affected persons. I do not accept the agency’s view that human rights infringements are exclusively the responsibility of the member states concerned. And I hope that the EP will support this view.

Emily O’Reilly is the European Ombudsman – tasked with investigating complaints of maladministration in European Union institutions and agencies

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