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Annual Report 2016

Available languages: en
Annual Report 2016
Annual Report 2016
16 May 2017
Emily O'Reilly

Introduction

Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman
Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman

I am very happy to present our 2016 Annual Report.

It was a turbulent year for the EU and the challenges will continue. The unemployment crisis, the ongoing migration crisis, the decision by the UK to leave the Union, and concerns around the impact on Europe of the new administration in the United States compel all of us to work even harder to make the EU institutions as responsive to, and as compassionate towards, the citizens we serve as possible.

This year showed again how the work of an ombudsman can have a positive effect over time on the quality of the EU administration, in line with my strategy to increase the impact, relevance and visibility of this office.

By conducting proactive strategic inquiries, my office was able to help raise the already high transparency and administrative standards of EU public bodies further still. We worked with the European Commission and European Parliament on reviewing the expert groups that advise the Commission on policy. We engaged with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker on the ethics of former Commissioners, and with the President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, on the Eurogroup’s transparency. We also made recommendations to the Commission on the authorisation of pesticides and to the Commission, Council and Parliament on how to improve the transparency of trilogues.

At the end of the year, we launched the Award for Good Administration to recognise excellence in EU public administration and the dedicated work of so many European civil servants working to improve the lives of European citizens.

My core work remains helping individuals when they encounter problems with EU public administration and their concerns make up the vast majority of the hundreds of complaints we deal with every year.

In 2016, we also held the annual conference of the European Network of Ombudsmen in Brussels, which built on our successful cooperation on issues including migration, lobbying transparency and the rule of law. The European Commission also committed to working more effectively with the Network.

I look forward to the challenging year ahead and to working with the EU administration in helping to find solutions to the problems faced by EU citizens. In particular, I look forward to continuing my excellent and collaborative engagement with the European Parliament. Its support has been, and continues to be, vital to the effective discharge of my mandate on behalf of the citizens we jointly serve.

Emily O’Reilly

Chapter 1 - 2016 at a glance

The year 2016 was an eventful one. Here are some of the highlights:

January

Letter to members of the European Network of Ombudsmen on the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund

February

Ombudsman asks Commission to report back on the authorisation of pesticides

March

Opened inquiry on the Euratom Treaty expert group documents

April

“Improving transparency in tobacco lobbying” – Ombudsman event

May

“Opened inquiry into Commission evaluation of conflicts of interest of special advisers

June

European Network of Ombudsmen annual Conference in Brussels

July

Ombudsman calls for more transparency in trilogues

August

Commission’s handling of infringement complaints under the EU Pilot scheme

September

“Ombudsman calls on European Commission President Juncker to clarify position on predecessor’s new role

October

“Disrupting Europe – truth, facts and social media” – Ombudsman event

November

Ombudsman welcomes President Juncker’s action on the Code of Conduct for Commissioners

December

Open Government Partnership global summit – Ombudsman’s plenary speech

Chapter 2 - Key topics

The European Ombudsman helps citizens as they engage with the EU institutions, bodies and agencies. Problems that arise range from contractual issues to violations of fundamental rights to a lack of transparency in decision-making or refusal of access to documents. In 2016, transparency-related inquiries again accounted for the greatest proportion of cases.

2.1 Transparency in EU decision-making

The Ombudsman in July published proposals to make trilogues – informal negotiations on EU legislative proposals between the European Parliament and Council of the EU in the presence of the Commission – more transparent. These included making available dates of trilogue meetings and summary agendas; the positions of both co-legislators on the Commission’s proposal; and the names of the decision-makers present in trilogue meetings. She recommended that documents that track the main stages of the process should be published as soon as possible after the negotiations end. The Ombudsman inspected the trilogue files of two EU laws (Credit Mortgage Directive and Clinical Trials Regulation) and held a public consultation, receiving 51 replies including five from national parliaments. The European Parliament, Council and Commission responded to the Ombudsman’s proposals in December, generally agreeing with the Ombudsman’s arguments in favour of more transparency. In the responses, the institutions outline their initial follow-up, which includes discussions with each other on the implementation of the proposals. #1

In May, the Ombudsman opened a strategic inquiry into how the European Commission carries out conflict of interest assessments for its special advisers. The advisers provide on-demand expert input directly to Commissioners. The aim of the inquiry, opened following individual complaints, is to ensure that rules are robust enough to avoid inappropriate influence on policy-making. In a letter to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Ombudsman suggested that both the mandate of the adviser and their outside activities be clear before the adviser is appointed and that the conflict of interest assessment be updated if their outside activity changes. #2

The Ombudsman’s case-handlers inspected the files concerning special advisers appointed in 2015 and 2016.

The Ombudsman’s case-handlers inspected the files concerning special advisers appointed in 2015 and 2016. The inspection report showed significant improvement in certain areas in 2016, a fact acknowledged in a letter from the Ombudsman to President Juncker. The Ombudsman in 2017 will continue to focus on possible further improvements in the following areas: how the procedure for appointing special advisers is organised; the Commission’s conflict of interest assessment before the appointment; the duty to declare new activities after the appointment; and public access to documents and information.

The Commission’s pilot programme, under which it seeks to ensure that Member States properly apply EU laws without resorting to an infringement procedure, is the subject of a strategic inquiry which began in May. The Ombudsman decided to look into the process after inquiring into several complaints. The Ombudsman asked the Commission how the procedure operates, including reasons for delays; how it communicates to complainants about the opening and closing of a pilot procedure and what the Commission does when a Member State repeatedly delays answering or does not give enough information. Towards the end of 2016, the Ombudsman conducted a further inspection of files to get a broader idea of how the procedure works in practice. The inquiry continues into 2017.

One case illustrating the importance of transparent decision-making concerned the process for authorising pesticides for the European market. Specifically it concerned the Commission’s practice of approving the safe use of an active substance before it gets all of the data necessary to support that decision (known as confirmatory data procedure). The Ombudsman asked the Commission to report back in 2018 and demonstrate that the procedure is being used restrictively, that there is improved oversight of Member States’ use of pesticides, and that the remaining assessments of the ten substances highlighted by the complainant have been completed. #1

Another case concerned delays by the Commission in the authorisation of 20 applications for genetically modified food and feed. During the inquiry, the Commission dealt with the 20 applications in question. However, the Ombudsman concluded that the delays were not justified and suggested that if the Commission considered the timescale for decision-making in relation to genetically modified food and feed to be inadequate, it should deal with the issue in its review of how such decisions are taken.

2.2 Lobbying transparency

The Ombudsman also inquired into the transparency of EU lobbying and related matters. The balance of interests represented in the hundreds of expert groups that advise the Commission on policy and legislation became a major strategic inquiry. In early 2016, the Ombudsman asked the Commission to take a series of expert group transparency steps, including the publication of comprehensive minutes of their meetings. The Parliament was also very active on this issue. In May, the Commission replied that it intended to make several changes to the system, including publishing agendas and meaningful minutes; improving conflict of interest management in relation to individuals appointed in a personal capacity; and linking expert group membership to the obligation to be on the EU Transparency Register. The Ombudsman will inspect the minutes of meetings and other relevant documents in 2017, before drawing her final conclusions on the Commission’s response to her recommendations. #3

Following the urging of the Parliament, the Commission revised the EU Transparency Register in 2016. The Ombudsman wrote to President Juncker with suggestions for improving the Register by making it a central transparency hub for all EU institutions and agencies. She also called for full funding transparency for all lobbying groups, improved data accuracy, and tightened monitoring. She also called for the final inter-institutional agreement on the Register to mention the right to complain to the Ombudsman. The revised Register is now being negotiated between the Commission, Parliament and Council. #4

Recognising that officials in public institutions at the EU and national level may welcome advice on how to avoid undue influence from interest groups, the Ombudsman drew up some practical guidelines. The do and do not list was published in draft form at the end of the year with a call for public feedback. The advice to officials included the reporting by them of unacceptable lobbying practices and not arranging meetings outside office hours, other than on official premises, or without the presence of another colleague.

In a decision at the end of 2016, the Ombudsman noted her strong disapproval of the Commission’s stance regarding the transparency of its meetings with tobacco lobbyists.

In a decision at the end of 2016, the Ombudsman noted her strong disapproval of the Commission’s stance regarding the transparency of its meetings with tobacco lobbyists. In autumn 2015, the Ombudsman had asked the Commission to proactively publish online all meetings with tobacco lobbyists, or their legal representatives, as well as the minutes of those meetings, to bring the institution in line with its obligations under the UN Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC). The practice recommended by the Ombudsman was already being followed by the Commission’s Directorate-General (DG) for Health. The Commission responded in early 2016 that it believed it was already complying with the FCTC and did not need to adopt DG Health’s practice. The Ombudsman closed the case with a finding of maladministration, noting that the Commission had not provided any good reasons for refusing to take the steps proposed by her office. #5

European Ombudsman event on transparency in tobacco lobbying.
European Ombudsman event on transparency in tobacco lobbying.

How to improve tobacco lobbying transparency was the subject of the Ombudsman’s strategic spring event. The seminar speakers included the EU Health Commissioner, the WHO representative to the EU; and civil society. The event examined how DG Health implements the FCTC and discussed the importance of the entire Commission implementing the same measures. The Ombudsman called on all EU institutions to implement the Convention fully according to its guidelines. #1