23rd May 2019


'If it's public money, it has to be visible'

  • The new ombudsman wants more transparency on public funding (Photo: Images_of_Money)

The EU's brand new ombudsman is planning a strategic shake up of the office taking it away from being a "dumping ground" for EU staff disputes to becoming a force for good governance in an EU capital awash with secretive lobbying and 'revolving door' cases.

Emily O'Reilly is just three weeks into the job. But there is already a coincidental familiarity. She is starting her work 18 years after the post was first set up and as the first woman after two men.

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  • Emily O'Reilly - “I want to bring together a team to do own-initiative and systemic investigations" (Photo: European Parliament)

In 2003, she found herself in the same position in her native Ireland. She went on to become a well-respected Ombudsman, raising the profile of the office by tackling various secretive ministries.

"I am ambitious for the role of the office and its impact," says O'Reilly. "The core work is dealing with complaints but the bigger part is about effecting positive change within the administration."

Her first important moment will come later this year when her office publishes a report looking into how the European Commission has dealt with conflict of interest situations over the last three years.

O’Reilly notes that how her office handles this - with the commission recently embroiled in a high-profile scandal about tobacco lobbying - will “define” how she is perceived for the rest of her mandate.

Another hot issue on her desk is the Michel Petite case, seen as epitomising the close links between EU institutions and big business.

Petite, former head of the commission's legal services, now works for a lobbying firm that has Big Tobacco on its books. He has discussed tobacco issues with the commission officials and continues to sit on an ethics committee advising the institution on lobbying rules.

The ombudsman's verdict is due in "the next couple of months."

As part of her aim to make EU institutions the “trailblazers” in transparency and governance O’Reilly plans to reorient her office.

"I want to focus the resources and the skills of the staff here on work that really matters.”

“We do spend quite a lot of time on staff cases. These are legitimate. But to my mind that is not the function that was intended for the office of the ombudsman.”

The EU institutions should largely handle these cases – which take up “precious time and money” – themselves with proper “complaint management systems”.

“I want to bring together a team to do own-initiative and systemic investigations. So there you scan the horizon and see where a case could make an impact and not just for a few people but on a wider basis.”

One such case is a probe into the EU border agency, Frontex. Her office is looking into how the agency deals with people who complain that they have been mistreated by it.

"Those are sort of issues this office should be focusing on," she said.

What is acceptable?

But it is one thing talking about good governance and another making it happen. Transparency and what is considered acceptable lobbying is often culturally defined.

The commission talks often about good governance but is regularly in the spotlight for high profile revolving door cases - such as Michel Petite's - and being unforthcoming about meetings with industry.

And it has a tin ear when it comes to seeing how things will be perceived outside Brussels, insisting, for example, that a register for lobbying groups should continue to be voluntary.

The European Parliament, meanwhile, is also publicly keen on transparency. But past experience shows deputies are slow to change. Transforming the rules around expenses and hiring family took many years. And many of its MEPs are still reluctant to disclose who they meet and when.

O'Reilly recalls that one deputy of the round 70 she met while campaigning for the job works for the sugar industry.

"This MEP might see it as supporting a legitimate industry. Others might see it as supporting something that potentially has damaging health effects."

She is keen to stress that she is not against lobbying as such which she considers a "perfectly legitimate activity". Her job is an "art form, not a precise science."

But her guiding ethic is that "if it is public money, it has to be visible."

She says she cannot be "proscriptive" about lobby rules for MEPs - one idea is that lobbyists lists should be attached to all legislative dossiers so the public can easily see who has had an influence on law-making.

"This is something that the MEPs themselves will have to see is the right thing to do."

Mandatory lobbying register

But she does say that "at the very least" the lobbying register will soon be made mandatory. "These things are incremental. Once it's mandatory, there'll be demands for other things."

O'Reilly is under time pressure though. Because her predecessor retired early, she has less than a year to make her mark before she has to go for re-election by parliament for a new five-year term.

Is she worried that she may tread on too many sensitive toes, abruptly ending her career as EU ombudsman.

She laughs. "No," she says emphatically.

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