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13th Apr 2024

EU watchdog vows to keep up pressure, if reappointed

  • Emily O'Reilly with Jose Manuel Barroso. The Ombudsman criticised EU staff who sold 'insider information' (Photo: European Parliament)

Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, has promised to keep up pressure on EU institutions if reappointed for another five years.

"Well, what's the point of me, if I'm not going to do that?", she told EUobserver shortly after announcing her candidacy last week.

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"I'm not making a martyr or a saint out of myself, but I see the European Ombudsman as a vital role. It's in the [EU] treaties and it's in the Charter of Fundamental Rights - you're a watchdog on the institutions", she said.

The 62-year old Irish woman was involved in several high-profile EU controversies in the past five years.

She reprimanded the European Commission for its shifty promotion of top civil servant Martin Selmayr.

She criticised its ethics when former EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso went to lobby for a US investment bank.

And she criticised European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi for his dealings with secretive financial clubs.

Some of her work attracted unprecedented international media attention.

The number of Ombudsman inquiries into EU malpractice also grew on her watch to hit record levels last year.

"I got involved with some heavy hitters, but I hope people would see the work I did was fair and non-partisan," O'Reilly said.

"We're just doing our job, but some of the cases take on a life of their own [in the media]", she added.

Some 98 percent of the inquiries arose from public tip-offs or complaints, but O'Reilly also used special reports and sent letters to needle people like Draghi or Jeroen Dijselbloem, the former head of the eurozone ministers' club, the Eurogroup, on greater transparency.

If it saw "systemic problems" which the general public was not aware of, the Ombudsman ought to trigger "own initiative" reports, she told EUobserver.

"The right has always been there [in the EU treaty] and it was used by my predecessors", she said.

The European Ombudsman is elected by a secret ballot of MEPs after hearings in the petitions committee in December.

Candidates need 40 MEPs from at least two EU states to back them in order to run and it remains unclear who plans to challenge O'Reilly at this stage.

High-value

But transparency in the EU Council, as well as in new EU bodies which arose after the financial crisis, such as the Single Supervisory Mechanism in Frankfurt, would remain a "high-value issue" if she was reappointed, she told this website.

So-called 'revolving doors', in which former EU officials, such as Barroso, walk out of EU posts into corporate jobs, also remained a matter of concern, she added.

"People [former officials] have a right to work, but we have to make sure public interest isn't harmed by the selling of insider information, which, let's face it, is very often what happens," she said.

Media pressure was sometimes effective in stimulating change, O'Reilly added.

The recent series of EU dramas - the financial crisis, the migration crisis, and Brexit - had created "greater public interest" in what was going in Brussels, she said.

Politico Europe's big launch in 2015 also "sexed up" Brussels journalism by making it "more dramatic, more personality-based", she added.

Soft power

The Ombudsman was not a judge whose verdicts had to be followed, but an "influencer" with "soft power", she noted.

"It's like being the conductor of an orchestra - sometimes you have to go with the big guns, sometimes the piccolo, and sometimes silence, sometimes we say nothing to media," she said.

"I'm a practical woman, who likes to see results," O'Reilly said.

Belgium, whose laws govern media in the EU capital, recently tabled a bill that could criminalise publication of leaked papers in what NGOs have called a threat to investigative journalists.

And O'Reilly stood up for media freedom in the EU bubble.

"Without commenting on the draft Belgian law in particular, I do however note Article 11.2 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which says that the freedom of the media shall be respected. This is vital for the media to carry out its functions in the public interest," she said.

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