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22nd Apr 2019

Ombudsman vows 'robust' action against EU secrecy

  • The Irish official has raised the profile of the EU ombudsman office (Photo: Valentina Pop)

EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly wants more transparency from EU institutions on letting officials switch to the private sector, negotiating trade agreements, and allowing medicines onto the European market.

"Even if I don’t have powers of a judge, I do have very strong investigatory powers, I can summon officials to question them about their actions," O'Reilly said Tuesday (23 September) in a press conference reporting on her first year in office.

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Providing she gets re-elected in January by the European Parliament, O'Reilly said she wants to use her powers "in a more robust way" and pursue a more "strategic" way of investigating transparency and integrity issues with EU institutions.

The EU ombudsman office is a 80-strong unit dealing with citizens' complaints. It also has the power to conduct own inquiries into conflicts of interest or transparency matters. The subsequent recommendations are non-binding but tend to put the institution concerned into the spotlight.

O'Reilly, who in 2003 was elected Ireland's first woman ombudsman, has already launched a public consultation about the ongoing EU-US trade negotiations (TTIP) which have drawn criticism for their secrecy and alleged privileged access for industry groups.

She has sent a series of questions to the EU commission about these allegations and said that if the answers - due by next month - are not satisfactory, the trade commissioner may be summoned for further explanations.

More scrutiny on 'revolving doors'

Conflicts of interest is another "strategic" area O'Reilly is pursuing, after having looked at a sample of 54 EU officials who left their job to work for the private sector.

She said the inquiry found "major deficiencies" in the way the European Commission justifies permissions to leave to a private sector job.

"We found that when someone was given permission, it was not very well reasoned, while when permission was not granted or restrictions were put in place, there was a very good reasoning for it," she said.

O'Reilly said the EU commission should set up a public register where the names and new jobs of EU senior officials are published. She argues that, in this case, the public interest trumps the privacy rights of those officials. The UK already has such a register for its government officials who switch to the public sector.

Other EU institutions are also subject of her scrutiny, such as the European Central Bank, whose transparency policy is "erring on side of extreme caution", or the European Medicines Agency, which, she said, first had a very progressive transparency policy but then caved in to pressure from the pharmaceuticals industry.

Looking at the statistics on where citizens' complaints originated from, Spain topped the list in 2013 with 416 complaints, followed by Germany with 269 and Poland with 248.

But as most of these complaints were referred to national authorities, Belgium emerges as the country with the most inquiries opened (53) as a result of such complaints, followed by Germany (40 inquiries) and Italy (39 inquiries).

At the other end of the scale is Malta, with seven complaints and zero inquiries launched in 2013, followed by Denmark ( seven complaints, three inquiries).

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