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Decision of the European Ombudsman concerning the alleged failure by the European Economic and Social Committee to ensure that a member declared all relevant interests (inquiry into complaints 500/2015/PL, 561/2015/PL, 570/2015/PL, 577/2015/PL, 619/2015/PL, 635/2015/PL and 650/2015/PL) [1]

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  • Case: 570/2015/PL
    Opened on 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015 - Recommendation on 19 Sep 2016, 19 Sep 2016 - Decision on 01 Jun 2017, 01 Jun 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Economic and Social Committee
  • Case: 650/2015/PL
    Opened on 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015 - Recommendation on 19 Sep 2016, 19 Sep 2016 - Decision on 01 Jun 2017, 01 Jun 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Economic and Social Committee
  • Case: 635/2015/PL
    Opened on 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015 - Recommendation on 19 Sep 2016, 19 Sep 2016 - Decision on 01 Jun 2017, 01 Jun 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Economic and Social Committee
  • Case: 619/2015/PL
    Opened on 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015 - Recommendation on 19 Sep 2016, 19 Sep 2016 - Decision on 01 Jun 2017, 01 Jun 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Economic and Social Committee
  • Case: 561/2015/PL
    Opened on 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015 - Recommendation on 19 Sep 2016, 19 Sep 2016 - Decision on 02 Jun 2017, 01 Jun 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Economic and Social Committee
  • Case: 500/2015/PL
    Opened on 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015 - Recommendation on 19 Sep 2016 - Decision on 01 Jun 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Economic and Social Committee
  • Case: 577/2015/PL
    Opened on 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015, 12 May 2015 - Recommendation on 19 Sep 2016, 19 Sep 2016 - Decision on 01 Jun 2017, 01 Jun 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Economic and Social Committee

The case concerned the manner in which the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted an own-initiative opinion on electromagnetic hypersensitivity. In its plenary session of January 2015, the EESC Assembly rejected a draft opinion prepared by one of its Sections and adopted instead a counter-opinion presented just the day before the plenary session. The complainants argued that the opinion should be withdrawn as the author of the counter-opinion had not declared to the EESC his connections with organisations linked to telecommunications companies. Moreover, they argued that the EESC Assembly was not given sufficient time to examine the counter-opinion and, as a result, the procedure followed did not comply with the applicable rules.

The Ombudsman inquired into the issue and found that the case brought to light systemic risks that could compromise the transparency and legitimacy of the procedures followed by the EESC. The Ombudsman recommended that the EESC (i) ensures that its members make a complete declaration of all relevant interests in a timely manner; and (ii) requires that declarations of interests be updated on a yearly basis and when new circumstances arise.

The Ombudsman also suggested that the EESC should always seek to ensure that its members are provided with sufficient time to examine documents before a vote is taken.

The EESC accepted the two recommendations and the suggestion. The Ombudsman welcomed the EESC’s reply and decided to close the case.

The background to the complaint

1. This inquiry concerned the manner in which the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)[2] adopted an own-initiative opinion in relation to electromagnetic hypersensitivity.[3]

2. A draft opinion on the issue was prepared by the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (hereinafter ‘TEN’). This draft decision was, however, rejected by the Assembly at the plenary session of January 2015. The Assembly adopted instead a counter-opinion[4] prepared by a member of the EESC who was also a member of the TEN.

3. Subsequently, the complainants[5] complained to the EESC that the member of the EESC in question had failed to declare to the EESC that he was working for two organisations with links to telecommunications companies.

4. The complainants stated that the counter-opinion had been sent to the EESC members just the day before the plenary session, which meant that the EESC members were not given sufficient time to review it before the vote. The complainants requested the EESC to annul the vote on electromagnetic hypersensitivity as it was, in their view, tainted by a "conflict of interest".

5. In its reply, the EESC stated that the vote could not be annulled because it complied with its internal rules. Regarding the alleged "conflict of interest", the EESC pointed out that under the applicable rules its members are not ʺbound by any mandatory instructions. They shall be completely independent in the performance of their duties, in the Union's general interestʺ.[6] This implied that members enjoy significant freedom in the performance of their EESC duties.

6. The complainants were not convinced by the EESC’s arguments and turned to the Ombudsman.

7. In May 2015, the Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the complainants’ allegations that the EESC (i) does not properly examine issues of potential "conflicts of interests" of its members and had failed to act when faced with an alleged conflict of interest by one of its members in this case; and that (ii) it had failed to follow the established procedure when adopting its opinion on electromagnetic hypersensitivity.[7]

8. In the course of the inquiry, the Ombudsman received the EESC’s opinion on the complaint and, subsequently, the comments of the complainants. The Ombudsman also inspected the EESC's file concerning this case. On 19 September 2016, the Ombudsman made a recommendation to the EESC, to which it replied on 7 December 2016. By the end of February 2017, the Ombudsman had received comments from several of the complainants on the EESC’s reply.

9. In conducting the inquiry, the Ombudsman has taken into account the arguments and opinions put forward by the parties.

Allegation that the EESC does not properly examine potential "conflicts of interests" of its members

The Ombudsman’s recommendations

10. The Ombudsman noted that, as far as the transparency of the opinions adopted by the EESC is concerned, EESC members must declare, in a timely manner, any relevant interests they have, and not just financial interests. This is important in order to ensure that the EESC's legitimacy, as a body representing diverse interests in EU society, is not undermined.

11. The Ombudsman observed that the fact that the interests of the EESC member who drafted the counter-opinion were known, was not due to any safeguard provided by the EESC's internal rules. On the contrary, this case brought to light the risks to the transparency and legitimacy of the EESC's work which can arise under the current rules.

12. The Ombudsman thus made the following recommendations:

The EESC should:

  • review the relevant rules in order to ensure that its members make, in a timely manner, a complete declaration of all relevant interests. This should cover any interests which could have an impact upon their work with the EESC;
  • require that declarations of interests be updated on a yearly basis. Moreover, if a member or a third party brings to the EESC's attention new circumstances that may affect the content of the declaration of interests initially submitted, the EESC should examine the matter and update that information in a timely manner where necessary.

13. In its reply, the EESC noted that “EESC members are individually responsible for their declarations of interest, which must be updated regularly”. The EESC accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendations, saying: ”[i]n light of your recommendations, the Committee will adopt the necessary measures to ensure that members are aware of these obligations. It will remind them of their obligations both on an annual basis, and whenever there are new developments that may require changes to be made.

14. In their comments, the complainants expressed their concern with the fact that the EESC had not made a specific commitment, such as revising its internal rules to guarantee that the members submit a full and regularly updated declaration of interests. The complainants insisted that a new opinion on electromagnetic hypersensitivity be drawn up.

The Ombudsman's assessment

15. The Ombudsman welcomes the EESC’s acceptance of her recommendations.

16. She trusts that by agreeing to adopt the necessary measures, it will put in place the required safeguards to ensure that EESC members submit their declaration of interests in a timely manner.

17. As to the complainants’ request that the EESC should vote again on the opinion in question, the Ombudsman has already noted in her Recommendation, that she sees no reason in this case to ask the EESC to do so.

Allegation that the EESC failed to follow the established procedure when adopting its opinion

18. The Rules of Procedure of the EESC state that the documents necessary for the deliberations shall be made available to the members "in good time". In this case, the Bureau decided to include the counter-opinion in the agenda of the plenary session which was scheduled for the following day.

19. A counter-opinion is not a simple or partial amendment; it is an amendment that sets out "a generally divergent view to the section opinion". The Ombudsman considered that providing members with only one day to examine not just one or more proposed amendments, but a counter-opinion that goes against an opinion already discussed and agreed at section level, carries the inherent risk that the members may not always have sufficient time to look at all the relevant information. Thus, the Ombudsman found it difficult to accept that the counter-opinion was circulated "in good time".

20. In the light of this, the Ombudsman made the following suggestion for improvement:

The EESC should:

  • seek to ensure that its members are always provided with enough time to examine documents on which they will be asked to vote.

21. In its reply, the EESC stated that the issue of what constitutes a reasonable amount of time for members to consult documents in connection with a plenary session would be on the agenda as part of a future revision of the Committee’s rules of procedure. In the meantime, the Bureau will make every effort to allow as much time as possible for discussing counter-opinions, including postponing them to a subsequent session or sending the opinion and counter-opinion back to the relevant section for re-examination, where institutional deadlines permit.

22. In their comments, the complainants noted that the EESC did not offer any specific commitment.

The Ombudsman's assessment

23. The Ombudsman is satisfied with the EESC’s commitment to address, within the context of the next revision of its internal rules, the issue of making documents available for consultation by members in “good time”. She trusts that the EESC will act on this undertaking and keep her updated as to its follow-up. She also welcomes the commitment by the EESC that, until this revision takes place, the Bureau will make every effort to allow as much time as possible for discussing counter-opinions, including postponing them to a subsequent session or even sending them back to the relevant section for re-examination, when this is feasible.

24. In light of these considerations the Ombudsman closes the case.

Conclusion:

On the basis of the inquiry into this complaint, the Ombudsman closes it with the following conclusion[8]:

The EESC has accepted the Ombudsman's recommendation.

The complainants and the EESC will be informed of this decision.

 

Emily O'Reilly
European Ombudsman

Done in Strasbourg, 01/06/2017

 

[1] Made in accordance with Article 3(6) of the Statute of the European Ombudsman - Decision of the European Parliament of 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties (94/262/ECSC, EC, Euratom), OJ 1994 L 113, p. 15.

[2]  The EESC is an advisory body that gives representatives of Europe's socio-occupational interest groups and others a formal platform to express their points of view on EU issues. Its opinions are forwarded to the Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament.

[3] TEN/559 Electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

[4] A counter-opinion is an amendment or amendments that "set out a generally divergent view to the section opinion (Rule 51(7) of the Rules of Procedure of the EESC)

[5] Initially, the Ombudsman received seven separate complaints from Associations and individual persons from different Member States. After this inquiry was launched, the Ombudsman received five additional complaints on the same matter. All of these complaints were dealt with in this inquiry.

[6] Article 300(4) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

[7] For further and more detailed information on the background to the complaint, the parties' arguments, and the Ombudsman's inquiry, please refer to the full text of the Ombudsman's recommendation available at: http://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/cases/recommendation.faces/en/71366/html.bookmark

[8] Information on the review procedure can be found on the Ombudsman’s website: http://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/resources/otherdocument.faces/en/70669/html.bookmark

Related documents

Case: 570/2015/PL Case: 650/2015/PL Case: 635/2015/PL Case: 619/2015/PL Case: 561/2015/PL Case: 500/2015/PL Case: 577/2015/PL