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Decision on the European Commission’s decision to recover grants paid under EU funded projects carried out by a national police authority (case 1733/2020/LM)

Monday | 11 October 2021

The complainant, a national police force, received two grants from the European Commission for projects to fight transnational crime, which it carried out successfully. Following audits of the projects, the Commission found that a big part of the costs were ineligible mainly due to the lack of supporting documents. The Commission therefore decided to recover a considerable part of the grants. The complainant turned to the Ombudsman arguing that the decision was disproportionate and that the Commission had not shown flexibility. The complainant considered that the Commission should have allowed it more time to send additional supporting documents and that it should have done another audit.

The Ombudsman found that it was reasonable for the Commission to conclude that the complainant had violated its contractual obligations under the ‘grant agreement’. The Commission had acted in accordance with EU financial rules and given the complainant ample opportunity to provide comments and submit additional supporting documents as proof of the costs it claimed. The Commission had also shown flexibility by agreeing to review supporting documents submitted late. The Ombudsman thus closed the inquiry with a finding of no maladministration.

Decision in OI/5/2020/MHZ on the functioning of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency's (Frontex) complaints mechanism for alleged breaches of fundamental rights and the role of the Fundamental Rights Officer

Tuesday | 15 June 2021

The Ombudsman opened an inquiry on her own initiative to look into how the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) deals with alleged breaches of fundamental rights through its ‘complaints mechanism’, and to address the role and independence of Frontex’s Fundamental Rights Officer in this regard.

In the context of a previous inquiry, the Ombudsman recommended the creation of an independent mechanism for handling complaints about Frontex operations. The complaints mechanism was approved by the EU legislators, and became operational in 2016.

Through the complaints mechanism, Frontex deals with complaints from individuals who believe their fundamental rights have been violated in the context of Frontex operations. The Fundamental Rights Officer’s role is to deal directly with complaints about the actions of Frontex staff members, as well as to ensure that complaints about the staff of national authorities involved in Frontex operations are dealt with properly by the relevant authorities. 

This inquiry aimed to assess how Frontex has implemented new rules concerning the complaints mechanism and the Fundamental Rights Officer, which came into force in November 2019. It also sought to assess the overall effectiveness of the complaints mechanism, against a background of public concerns about fundamental rights violations in the context of Frontex operations.

Since its creation, the complaints mechanism has dealt with a very low number of complaints, with no complaints as yet concerning the actions of Frontex staff members. Between 2016 and January 2021, the Fundamental Rights Officer had received 69 complaints of which 22 were admissible. With operations made up of staff members from different bodies, who are responsible to different authorities, it may be difficult for potential complainants to identify the alleged perpetrators and to understand how and to whom they can report alleged violations, and seek redress through the appropriate channels.

In this inquiry, the Ombudsman also reviewed complaints dealt with by the complaints mechanism and identified various potential shortcomings that may make it more difficult for individuals to report alleged fundamental rights violations and seek redress. The Ombudsman’s inquiry also identified delays by Frontex in implementing its new obligations concerning the complaints mechanism and the Fundamental Rights Officer.

Based on the inquiry, the Ombudsman sets out a series of suggestions for improvement to Frontex, with a view to improving the accessibility of the complaints mechanism for potential victims of fundamental rights violations and strengthening the accountability of Frontex operations and all those involved therein. These include suggestions on how to make it easier for potential victims of fundamental rights violations to be aware of redress possibilities and to report incidents, as well as suggestions to improve how complaints are handled and followed up on.

Decision in cases 320/2021/DDJ and 599/2021/DDJ on the refusal by the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) to grant public access to documents related to its interactions with two companies providing a data analysis platform

Monday | 14 June 2021

The cases concerned two requests for public access to documents detailing Europol’s contractual relations and communications with two companies providing a data analysis platform for the Agency. Europol refused public access, in part or in full, to most of the documents identified in the first request, arguing mainly that disclosure would undermine the protection of the public interest as regards public security. Europol refused public access to all the documents identified in the second request in order to protect public security and its internal decision-making process.

On the basis of an inspection of the requested documents, the Ombudsman considered that most of the information they contained would, if disclosed, be likely to undermine the protection of the public interest as regards public security. The Ombudsman did not consider that there were grounds to continue her inquiry as regards the very limited information that was not covered by that exception.   

While the Ombudsman identified a number of shortcomings in how Europol had dealt with the matter, overall she concluded that there was no maladministration by Europol in refusing public access to the documents at issue.