EU citizens complain about lack of transparency
By Honor Mahony
Lack of transparency remained the key topic of EU citizens' complaints to the European ombudsman last year, with Maltese, Luxembourg, Cypriot and Belgian citizens having the most grumbles.
European ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros, whose job it is to deal with complaints from member state citizens concerning the European institutions, received 3,406 complaints in 2008 (up from 3,211 in 2007), with 36 percent of the cases opened concerning transparency issues, such as access to documents.
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Other complaints in the ombudsman's annual report for 2008 concerned abuse of power (20%), negligence (8%) and discrimination (5%).
His office managed to close 355 of the cases throughout the year, the highest ever, with most (129) resulting in a friendly solution. But institutions were found to have behaved incorrectly in 53 cases, and the ombudsman gave a black mark to 44 of the cases closed, meaning he considered the institution not to have behaved properly.
This is down from the 55 cases closed with a critical note in 2007, but there were still "too many," says Mr Diamandouros. 'Critical notes' go down for record but do not oblige the institutions to change their practices.
Last year also saw a hike in the number of NGOs and businesses lodging complaints with the ombudsman's office, with grievances often concerning late or non-payment of bills by the institutions.
The European Commission received the most complaints (66%), deemed as "normal" by the ombudsman, as it takes the most decisions affecting EU citizens' lives. The parliament received 10 percent of complaints, while the office handling applications for EU jobs came in third, with seven percent.
Age and language discrimination
The highest number of complaints came from Germany (16%) followed by Spain and Poland (10%). But in terms of complaints relative to the size of their population, the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta clocked in at number one.
Complaints ranged from age discrimination to language discrimination and lack of transparency concerning MEPs' salaries.
A typical complaint concerned a Belgian freelance interpreter who worked for the EU institutions for over three decades but suddenly found himself out of work when he turned 65. Another involved a Spanish citizen objecting to a European-Investment-Bank-backed project for a high-speed railway in Barcelona who said that a proper environment impact assessment had not been carried out.
Mr Diamandouros said an "accountable and transparent EU administration is key to building citizens' trust in the EU."
He called on the commission to "amend its proposals to reform the legislation on public access to documents."
The European Parliament and commission are currently trying to work out a compromise on updating its 2001 transparency law.
The transparency law in practise
MEPs in March made the original commission proposal more ambitious, extending it to cover all electronic documents and requiring that officials release requested documents more quickly.
An agreement is expected later this year under the Swedish EU presidency which has promised to make transparency a priority issue.
Meanwhile, transparency pressure groups earlier this month strongly criticised an internal memo to officials working in the commission's trade unit on how to deal with the transparency rules.
The memo warned officials to be careful about what they write in emails and advised them on how to narrowly interpret requests for information.