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19th Jan 2019

Retiring ombudsman wants more transparent EU

  • Diamandouros: 'infinite transparency means no privacy and infinite privacy means no transparency, so you need ... balance' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Retiring EU ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros says he has witnessed the slow erosion of a dominating culture of secrecy among the EU civil services.

“[But] this in no way suggests that I am content and satisfied,” the 70-year old Greek national told reporters in Brussels on Monday (27 May).

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The EU Ombudsman, staffed with 66 people, is tasked to seek a fair outcome in complaints against EU institutions, to encourage transparency and to promote an administrative culture of service.

The office dealt with over 30,000 complaints and opened almost 3,500 investigations into alleged acts of maladministration in EU institutions under his watch.

Last year, it opened a record 465 inquiries with over 80 percent of its recommendations taken on-board.

Most complaints dealt with the lack of transparency, the refusal to release documents or information.

Other cases involved conflict of interests, discrimination and the execution of EU contracts.

Diamandouros - who steps down in October after 10 years of service as head of the Brussels-based office - called the EU transparency regulation of 2001 a revolution that is still in the process of being internalised.

Provisions and application in the regulation, he says, needs to be expanded and should include all EU institutions as well as the Council.

But discussions on its expansions have been stalled for the past five years, with the European Commission and the member states demonstrating the most reluctance to revamp the text.

“There is considerable uncertainty and hesitation both in the commission and the council on the issue of what exactly it is one can expand,” he said.

He noted that the current political climate, linked to the economic crisis, is not favourable to more openness.

“My assessment is that the political climate at this point in the European Union is not favourable to in fact moving these frontiers forward,” he said.

But he noted that his office has helped shift the mind-set of EU civil servants into one where the state exists to serve the citizen and not the other way around.

“Transparency has been in the books in the European Union for now 12 years, meaning 2001. Before that between 1958 and 2001, transparency was not in the books, was not known, and was not practiced,” he said.

Transparency, he noted, was not even in the official EU vocabulary until the mid-1990s, following the Treaty of Maastricht and the arrival of the Scandinavians.

“The Scandinavians brought a new vocabulary with them like transparency, openness, and accountability. This was not part of the tradition of the administrative culture of the European Union civil service before then,” he said.

He said 40-plus years of a culture that had no concept of transparency could not be so easily swept away, even 12 years after the transparency regulation.

“For this very reason, there is a lingering tendency within the administration, of all administrations, not to immediately acknowledge shifts in policy,” he noted.

Replacement candidates announced

Diamandouros said he has no qualms of being replaced by someone from within the EU institutions.

“The more delicate issue arises when in fact sitting members of parliament stand and this is an issue where the ombudsman cannot and should not comment,” he noted.

A spokesperson explained the issue is delicate since the European Parliament has exclusive responsibility over the selection process.

European Parliament president Martin Schultz in May put forward six new candidates for the post at the independent institution.

Three of them are sitting members of the parliament.

They are Dutch centre-right MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten, German socialist MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt,and Italian Lega Nord MEP Francesco Speroni.

“I trust my successor will maintain the independence and integrity and impartiality that the EU Ombudsman statue requires,” Diamandouros said.

The successor is to be announced at the July plenary session.

Diamandouros, for his part, plans on retiring in Greece and work on his scholarly writing.

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