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Address to the Irish Parliament's Joint Committee on European Union Affairs

Available languages: en

Dublin, Ireland, 14 February 2018

Address to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs

European Ombudsman, Ms. Emily O'Reilly

Dublin, 14 February 2018

Good afternoon Chairman, Honourable members, a dhaoine uaisle.

Thank you for your welcome and let me say how pleased I am to be in Leinster House again and for the opportunity to address you here this afternoon on an issue which I believe goes to the heart of the current challenges facing the EU.

I am aware that this Committee has invested considerable time over the past year, hearing from experts, and assessing the current deliberations on the future of Europe. While they may not feature on the list of more high profile institutional reforms currently under discussion, it would be a mistake not to consider democratic accountability and transparency reforms as priorities, as we seek to respond to the current public uncertainty about the EU.

Laws that affect people’s daily lives should be drawn-up in a manner that is as transparent as possible. This is essential for enabling meaningful public scrutiny of and, thus, accountability for those laws. More transparent law-making is central to the democratic legitimacy of our institutions and, at a more fundamental level, for responding to the current crisis of public confidence in democratic institutions, whether at EU level or in the member states.

Overall, despite what some may assume the EU administration has actually higher ethical and transparency standards than most member state administrations. For example, Ireland being a commendable exception, very few Member States have a lobbyist register as the EU does. Very few national Ministers in Europe publish details of their travel expenses, as the European Commission has just recently agreed to do.

The Commission and important EU agencies such as the European Medicines Agency for example, have also made commendable strides in recent years in opening up their processes and practices to public scrutiny. Matters of great public interest, such as EU trade deals and the results of clinical trails on medicines are now much more transparent than they were. And, as I have frequently said, the world has not stopped turning as a result.

That being said, it is clear that the Council of the EU, where the national governments are represented, is not a star pupil among the institutions when it comes to transparency and to accounting for its decisions.

Given its crucial role in the EU’s law-making process, this is something I believe needs to be addressed. That is what motivated my decision to launch a strategic inquiry last year into the transparency and accountability of the Council.

On the basis of that inquiry, this week I issued a series of recommendations.

When the Council formally adopts EU laws, meetings and discussions of the ministers on the draft laws are public. However, before the Council reaches a formal position, preparatory discussions will have taken place in some of the more than 150 committees and working parties in Council.

It is at this level, as you know, that not only the nuts and bolts of the legislative work takes place but actual legislative decisions are at times made. Most of the changes to draft laws are proposed, and compromises between member states are sought, at this stage, before ministers adopt a final position.

Unlike Council meetings, these preparatory bodies of ambassadors and civil servants, do not meet in public. As such, the only way to follow their discussions on legislation is through whatever records exist of these discussions.

This requires, firstly, that legislative discussions in preparatory bodies be documented and, secondly, that such documents are accessible in an easy and timely manner. Both of these factors are essential for facilitating public scrutiny of the legislative work in these bodies.

The national representatives who sit on these Council bodies are democratically accountable to the national parliaments and to citizens of their member states in theory. However, in order for the public to be able to hold governments to account for the decisions they make on EU laws, they need to know how their governments positioned themselves in the legislative process. And this crucial piece of the process is currently generally lacking.

As part of my inquiry, we carried out a public consultation last year. This consultation yielded some highly relevant responses, including from the Dutch and UK parliaments, that have helped fine-tune the outstanding issues. On the basis of this, I have now made a series of recommendations and suggestions to Council.

The Council secretariat is clearly aware of its deficiencies in this area and has certainly made some welcome progress, not least by introducing a new internal recording system in November 2016. While this is an internal register, the very existence of such a system should help provide a greater incentive comprehensively to record and document all legislative discussions in the preparatory bodies.

At present, it appears that there is no uniform approach to reporting and documenting the legislative discussions in the preparatory bodies. Council also takes a selective approach as to how it discloses documents that do exist. My recommendations and suggestions to Council seek to ensure these issues are addressed.

Much of this can seem rather abstract, removed from the stuff of everyday political life. Yet all of us are aware of the practice by which member state governments sometimes criticise decisions taken “in Brussels” towards their domestic audience. Yet, very often, during the legislative process “in Brussels”, they had supported or shaped the very decision they then criticise.

Systematically recording the identity of member states expressing positions in the preparatory bodies, and proactively disclosing these records, would go some way to addressing this problem. Yes I am aware of the challenges that this may pose when the diplomatic impulse is towards arriving at a consensus with the minimum of fuss, but the price of that may be to continue to feed an inaccurate view of how EU law-making is actually carried out – and to allow some Member State governments to continue to perpetuate the stigmatisation of the so-called faceless Brussels bureaucrat.

My hope is that, by addressing the opaque nature of law-making in Council, my inquiry will help to encourage all EU governments to defend democratically decided EU legislation in the public interest in the future. As a result, I am hoping that Council responds positively to the recommendations that I set out this week.

Before I finish, while we conduct I wish just to mention two other pieces of work my office is currently engaged in. Of course Brexit is a huge issue for this country, and for the EU more widely. Early last year, I wrote to both the European Commission and Council of the EU encouraging them to be as transparent as possible in the Brexit negotiations. It is important again that citizens and national parliaments can follow this crucial process, which will affect the lives of millions and especially on this island. Thankfully the EU has adopted a progressive stance in relation to publishing all important documents during the negotiations, including the EU guidelines, negotiating directives and position papers. Unfortunately, the UK side has not been seen to be as transparent.

Also recently, following a yearlong inquiry based on a complaint from Denmark, I made a recommendation to the European Central Bank about its involvement with the Washington DC based so-called ‘Group of 30’. President Draghi is a member of this group which is a private group of 30 senior bankers, public officials and academics. It holds two private meetings per year and includes representatives of some global banks which the ECB supervises as part of its banking supervision mandate. My main recommendation was that President Draghi suspend his membership of this group, until he leaves office, in order to protect the ECB from any perception that their independence could be compromised. I also recommended that no future Executive Board members become members of the ‘Group of 30’. I expect the response of the ECB in April.

Finally, I thank you for your support in my role as European Ombudsman and also the Irish MEPs who have been consistently supportive of my work in the European Parliament.

Thank you again for your invitation today.