EU Ombudsman: “Sometimes we only know it when it is too late”

On 26th of March we interviewed the European Ombudsman, Mrs Emily O’Reilly, on the level of transparency in the EU and on the campaign for the recognition of the right to know.

Mrs. O’Reilly, in respect of your decision of 13th of February which confirmed a case of maladministration by the EU Council, what led you to open the 11-month investigation that brought you to that conclusion?

Well, we have been conscious of the general discussion, within the European Parliament, civil society and the EU member states about the general sense of the Council’s lack of transparency as compared to its co-legislator, the EP, which is very transparent in relation to the work that it is doing. Transparent EU law making is important to make the process more accountable and for EU citizens to be able to be informed and get involved if they choose to. This is the main reason why we decided to open this particular investigation into Council accountability.

Do you believe the EU Council is withholding too much information unnecessarily?

The Council is always trying to reach consensus among 28 members and that can obviously be difficult. However, it is very important to avoid the perception that things are being done secretly or behind the back of citizens. The most important issue that we are looking at is the recording of the positions of member states at different points during the making of a regulation. As you know, it starts at technical level, with working groups which are composed of civil servants from different member states who do a certain amount of work. Then when they agree at that level, if there is an agreement, it goes up to the next level, which is the ambassadors’ level. They discuss and debate, and again it can be decided at that level. Then, at the very end, it goes up to the Ministers. Up to that point the decision-making process is not public. So if you look back through the trajectory, the history of that particular regulation, it can be very hard to know at what point certain decisions were made or which country took a particular position at a particular time. Therefore, it is not that we do not know the outcome, but sometimes we only know it when it is too late. Conclusions have been reached and the capacity for citizens to get involved at that stage is very limited.

Coming to more recent events, have you been following the “Selmayrgate”? And if you have, to what extent?

Yes, we have. We have received a number of complaints in relation to the manner in which Mr. Selmayr was appointed. We are looking at them at the moment, but obviously we are conscious that the Budget Control Committee of the European Parliament is also looking into this issue. We will be following their outcome and then decide about our next steps.

What is your opinion about the double promotion of Martin Selmayr and could this be an example of bad practice in the EU administration?

Well, as you can understand, as an Ombudsman it is my duty to first get the facts before I have any thought or opinion on that. What I will do is assemble all the information that I need to see, all the relevant records. I will talk to everybody I need to talk to and then form my own conclusions. But to be fair to the process and to Mr. Selmayr it would not be appropriate to voice my opinion at this stage.

The Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella” and the Nonviolent Radical Party are promoting an initiative which aims to the adoption of a resolution on the Right to Know by the UN General Assembly. Would you support such a resolution and what are your thoughts about it?

I think in the EU context, which is where I am based and which my mandate covers, I would support it. I have been looking at the regulation that governs EU transparency, EU access to documents, namely Regulation 1049. It was adopted in 2001 and it has not been amended since. I often make the point that this particular regulation pre-dates social media. It came before Facebook, it came before Twitter and that is the regulation under which documents are publicly released in the EU. So I think a revision is badly needed, but it is stuck at the moment, so I think it would be important for me, for the institutions, for citizens to see if we could make some progresses on that.

Thank you very much.

Interview by Irene Guidarelli
@IreneGuidarelli

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