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17th Feb 2019

Ombudsman: 'Now the hard work begins'

  • Emily O'Reilly's mandate is up for renewal by the European Parliament in January 2015 (Photo: European Union)

Emily O'Reilly marked her first year in office as the European Union's Ombudsman on Wednesday (1 October) but her gloves are only coming off now.

The Irish woman has launched more investigations than any of her predecessors in their first year.

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But identifying problems and launching investigations is the easy part of the job.

“Now the hard work begins,” she acknowledged. "Next year will be the time to execute".

It is only then that it will be possible to measure if she has managed to live up to her job description of improving the transparency and integrity of EU institutions.

Among the investigations launched is one on transparency in the ongoing EU-US trade talks – known as TTIP.

"I want a full list of all documents in the negotiations made publicly available on the internet without this meaning that they should also all necessarily be accessible", she told members of the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (Epaca) in Brussels, an organisation of the major lobby companies in the EU capital.

In another investigation on ‘revolving doors’ - when high-ranking EU officials take jobs in the private sector - she reminded the industry of its responsibility.

"I have looked into some 50 cases [of revolving doors] suggested by NGOs, the commission, or taken up at our own initiative,” she said.

Her idea is to have an online register of reasoned permissions given by the commission for high-ranking employees to take up new tasks in the private sector.

She noted that there is a third player in the game of revolving doors.

"Besides the commission and the employee, the onus is also on the business not to go overboard to attract people precisely for them to spill the beans," she said, noting that business should also give thought on how to handle potential insider information.

O’Reilly also took the opportunity to announce another investigation into how immigrants and refugees are flown from EU member states back to their home countries.

It would be a joint investigation with two to three member states, since the EU’s border agency, Frontex, has no complaint mechanism of its own, she explained.

Charter for public affairs

To mark the ombudsman’s one year in the job, Epaca chairman Karl Isaksson presented her with a new charter, which he said would "establish a golden standard for Brussels-based public affairs consultancies".

The charter obliges members to sign up to the EU transparency register and to include their registration number in all communication materials. It also commits signatories to pay Brussels interns according to Belgian rules.

"I think Emily O'Reilly is doing a great job increasing the Ombudsman's visibility and hence its usefulness in the EU system,” Isaksson said.

“She has a clear idea of what she wants to achieve and she does not seem to shy away from the challenges.”

The Corporate European Observatory (CEO), an NGO monitoring transparency and ethics in the EU, was also complimentary.

"Already in her first year O'Reilly has been breaking new ground in promoting transparency and accountability in the work of the EU institutions," said Olivier Hoedeman, Research and Campaigns Coordinator at CEO.

She has made the Ombudsman institution far more visible via public speeches, hearings and media coverage and thereby built very strong pressure for ending secrecy, conflicts of interest and other bad habits in Brussels decision-making," he added.

O'Reilly is aware that she needs visibility for her institution to deliver, but that alone is not sufficient.

She also needs to work with the network of European Ombudsmen, which she knows well from her own time as Ombudsman in Ireland.

"You don't want to get landed with 100,000 of complaints that you can't deal with", she said, admitting that this might happen when it comes to asylum and immigration cases.

She recalled one occasion when an investigation by the European Commission into potential state aid for Spanish football clubs caused a huge reaction.

"I was interviewed by media all over the world, and not because of interest for the European Ombudsman institution but because of people's passion about football."

Ultimately she well aware of both the limits and the strengths of her office.

"As Ombudsman I cannot order any changes, but I can investigate and that is a strong power as well.”

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