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Summary of the decision of the European Ombudsman setting out suggestions following her strategic inquiry OI/5/2016/AB on timeliness and transparency in the European Commission’s handling of infringement complaints

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  • Case: OI/5/2016/AB
    Opened on 13 May 2016 - Decision on 14 Sep 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Commission

Effective application of EU law is essential to ensuring the Union’s credibility. To check that Member States correctly transpose and implement EU law, the European Commission is tasked — in its role as “guardian of the Treaties” — with investigating alleged infringements.

Complaints lodged by citizens, organisations and businesses are an essential source of information for the Commission on possible breaches of EU law. Complainants, however, sometimes struggle to understand that infringement procedures are not always the best way to solve their individual problem. They also find it difficult to accept that the Commission enjoys discretionary powers to open or not to open an infringement procedure at the end of its investigations.

After receiving a range of complaints about the Commission’s handling of these cases, the Ombudsman opened a strategic inquiry to investigate whether there were underlying systemic problems. The inquiry concerned the Commission’s handling of infringement complaints under what is generally referred to as the “EU Pilot” system, which structures the informal stage of infringement proceedings. The purpose of “EU Pilot” is to conduct an informal dialogue with Member States to remedy breaches of EU law at an early stage and avoid resorting to formal infringement procedures. The inquiry covers: (i) the Commission’s duty to reach a timely decision, (ii) information to complainants and (iii) information to the public about EU Pilot cases.

The Ombudsman found that handling infringement complaints quickly under “EU Pilot” has been a challenge for Commission departments. The Commission has recognised these problems and adopted a new strategy in January 2017, according to which it will improve its management of infringement proceedings notably by focusing on systemic and serious breaches of EU law. At the same time, the Commission updated its procedures for handling relations with complainants.

The Ombudsman welcomes the fact that the Commission has made efforts to address the problems that gave rise to this inquiry. She believes, however, that the Commission can make further improvements. The Ombudsman therefore closes her inquiry with 8 suggestions to which the Commission should have regard in order to further improve its relations with complainants and to enhance the transparency of its actions.