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24th Jan 2020

Interview

Irish EU watchdog pledges 'energetic' approach

  • Emily O'Reilly pledged more 'strategic investigations' in next five years (Photo: European Parliament)

EU officials can expect five more years of needling investigations at the hands of their ombudsman, "energetic" Irish woman Emily O'Reilly.

"When I was first elected in 2013 I had one ambition and that was to make the office a much stronger force, more relevant for people and for institutions. I think I've succeeded in doing that," O'Reilly told EUobserver following her reappointment in a European Parliament vote on Wednesday (18 December).

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"Obviously there was some opposition to that, as I've been discovering over the last few weeks and months, but parliament has given me the mandate [to carry on] and I've always been clear about what I want to do," she said.

O'Reilly, in the past five years, went after big names such as European Commission top civil servant Martin Selmayr and its former president, Jose Manuel Barroso, when they stepped out of line.

She used her prerogative to launch "own initiative" reports into "strategic" issues, such as transparency in the EU Council.

And she was in the media much more than her predecessors, sometimes due to deliberate attention-seeking.

"Even if 490m [EU] citizens have never heard of the office, I asked myself: 'How can I still do things that will have a positive impact on their life?' and that's why I started making more use of strategic investigations," she said.

"We can't be relevant and effective if people have never heard about us," she added.

Her approach has earned her some enemies, with Selmayr and Barroso's political bloc, the centre-right European People's Party, recently backing a Swedish contender for her job in what smelled of revenge.

"I discovered that 'activist' is apparently a dirty word [in Brussels]. I'm active, certainly ... I'm energetic," O'Reilly, a 62-year old former journalist, said.

But "transparency" and "ethics" were more to her than mere slogans, she added

"When people hear 'transparency, ethics' I'm sure they yawn sometimes, because they become cliches almost, but they do have real-world impact and that's what I'm going to try and continue to explore," she said.

EU Council opacity has had a real impact on the environment, for instance, she noted.

Member states began talks on which pesticides they ought to ban in order to protect falling bee populations back in 2013.

The bee case

But six years later, they remained stuck in negotiations, the general public did not know who said what behind closed doors, and the scientific advice was buried in council archives.

"Without transparency, without us knowing whether Ireland is pro-something or anti-something, or France, or Germany or whatever country - civil society and media can't get in and put pressure on those countries," O'Reilly said.

Ethical failures, such as Selmayr's shady promotion or Barroso's brazen industry lobbying, also have a broader impact on rule of law and politics in Europe, she added.

"If the institutions of the EU, in particular the commission, don't act in a particular way, that has impact. We saw it in relation to the big cases that I dealt with," she said.

The EU commission is currently trying to curb lawlessness in Hungary, Malta, and Poland.

But O'Reilly noted: "When the commission asks them to do something, they say: 'Well what about this and about that?'."

EU incontinence

"Something like that [the Selmayr or Barroso cases] happens, it's immediately picked up by eurosceptics ... it has impact, politically, down the line because people are always looking to find reasons to turn people against the EU and the institutions," she added.

She had "high hopes" for an ally in commission president Ursula von der Leyen, whom she planned to shortly meet.

"We have a commission that's put a big priority on transparency on ethics. For the first time, we have a commissioner with transparency attached to their portfolio brief, so that has to be made real," O'Reilly added, referring to Vera Jourova, the Czech commissioner responsible for "values and transparency".

"The [EU] institutions have a huge role to play by leading by example," O'Reilly said.

"It's bit like if you're a parent and you're trying to tell your children they shouldn't drink, but meanwhile you're downing six bottles of wine a night," she said.

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