Speech of the European Ombudsman: Speech to the European Parliament, Strasbourg, 6 September 2001
Mr President, distinguished Members of the European Parliament!
In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty established the right to petition the European Parliament and the right to complain to the European Ombudsman as rights of European citizenship. At the Nice summit in December 2000, these rights were enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The reports and resolutions which the European Parliament is debating today concern the present state and future development of these vital constitutional rights of European citizens. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, which goes to heart of European citizenship.
Before commenting on some of the reports, I would like to express my thanks to Commissioner Loyola DE PALACIO for continuing to ensure that the Commission respects deadlines for answers to the Ombudsman's inquiries and provides answers which are complete and accurate. This good co-operation is vital to ensure that the Ombudsman can deal with complaints promptly and effectively and thereby fulfil his mission of enhancing relations between the citizens and the Community institutions and bodies.
I would also like to pay tribute today to the work of Mr Jean-Claude EECKHOUT. He will soon be retiring from his post in the Secretariat General of the Commission where he deals, amongst other things, with relations between the Commission and the European Ombudsman. To me, he represents the model public servant. He is devoted not only to the European ideal, but also to the hard practical work of improving administration for the benefit of citizens.
The Code of Good Administrative Behaviour
I now turn to the Code of Good Administrative Behaviour and congratulate Mr Roy PERRY on his excellent report. It is appropriate that Mr PERRY should be the rapporteur, since he first launched the idea of such a Code some years ago, in the report of the Committee on Petitions on its own activities in 1996-7. JEAN-MAURICE DEHOUSSE, rapporteur for Committee on Legal Affairs and the Internal Market, has also played an important role. He has stressed that the Code should have a firm legal basis and suggested a practical way to achieve this.
I do hope that this report will be followed by the rapid adoption of a Regulation. This should ensure that citizens enjoy the same rights as citizens and respect for the rule of law when they deal with a Community institution or body as when they deal with a Member State administration. The Nice Charter includes good administration as one of the fundamental rights of citizenship. I cannot understand why anyone should oppose the idea of Community law providing citizens with as high a standard of legal protection vis-à-vis the European administration as national laws already provide vis-à-vis the Member States' administrations.
In my view, effective publicity for a legally binding Code of Good Administrative Behaviour could help enhance relations between the citizens and the Community institutions and bodies much more effectively than mere exhortations to officials to behave well.
The Statute of the Ombudsman
The report of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs on the Statute of the European Ombudsman is unusual because the Treaty makes the European Parliament the legislator and also entrusts to it the power of initiative. The role of the Council is limited to giving its approval to the Parliament's text by qualified majority, whilst the Commission gives a non-binding opinion.
I would like to thank the rapporteur, Teresa ALMEIDA GARRETT, for the principled approach which she has taken to the legislative process. As she has emphasised, the original Statute was drafted nearly a decade ago. Its provisions concerning the inspection of documents and the hearing of witnesses need to be updated in the light of the greater emphasis on administrative openness and transparency and the need to gain the confidence of the public and promote a modern administrative culture at Community level.
The proposed changes would ensure that citizens can have confidence in the accuracy of the Ombudsman's inquiries. They would also mean that the texts governing the European Ombudsman's office could stand as an example to States which hope to join the Union, or to take inspiration from it in relation to democratic ideals and the rule of law. I therefore hope that the Commission's opinion will be based on a genuine commitment towards enhancing accountability to citizens.
The Bösch report
The report of the Committee on Petitions on the Ombudsman's Annual Report for the year 2000 is also before us. I congratulate the rapporteur Mr BÖSCH for his excellent and constructive report, which rightly focuses on the need to serve European citizens effectively.
Prompt handling of complaints
I fully agree with the rapporteur that the Ombudsman should deal with complaints as quickly as possible. To this end, we have continued our efforts to eliminate unnecessary delay by insisting that the institutions and bodies respect the deadlines for responding to complaints and by improving our own efficiency.
We have made significant progress towards achieving our internal management targets of acknowledging complaints within one week, deciding on their admissibility within one month and closing inquiries within one year. At the end of August last year, there were 65 cases still open after one year. By August 2001 the comparable figure was 25 cases. Of these, one remains open because we have submitted a special report to the European Parliament. In five other cases, the Statute lays down that the institution concerned has a further three months to produce a detailed opinion on a draft recommendation.
Mr BÖSCH also rightly mentions the need for improvement in the provision of information to citizens about the right to petition the European Parliament and the right to complain to the European Ombudsman. As regards the Ombudsman, the EuroBarometer statistics released in April 2001 show that 32% of citizens had heard of the European Ombudsman. Although we aim to increase this figure, it already compares quite favourably with recognition of bodies such as the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee, which have a broader mandate than the European Ombudsman's office. Furthermore, throughout 2000, the Ombudsman's Annual Report was one of the most popular documents downloaded from the European Parliament's web server.
The clearest indication of sustained improvement in public knowledge of the Ombudsman is the growth in the number of complaints. The total number of complaints increased by just under 10% from 1999 to 2000 (1577 to 1732 complaints). This rate of increase has continued in 2001 and we could reach 2000 complaints this year.
The BÖSCH report also refers to the problems which Committee on Petitions has faced in obtaining the information needed to deal effectively with citizens' petitions. An example of such problems is the case of the petition concerning the regulation of the Lloyds insurance market, which has recently received some coverage in the press.
In my view, the most effective way to improve the situation could be through strengthening co-operation between the Ombudsman and the Committee on Petitions, especially in relation to petitions about infringements of Community law by Member States, where the Commission plays a vital role through the so-called "Article 226" procedure.
We would be ready to handle the preparation of such cases in a professional way and thereby facilitate the work of the Committee on Petitions.
Some questions of principle need to be resolved to make this possible. There are also practical issues, including the need for a change in the Statute and adequate resources. Solutions could be surely found quickly, if there is the will to do so. I, for my part, am ready to enter discussions with the Committee and the European Parliament's administration to achieve this.
Whatever happened to citizenship?
In conclusion, Mr President, I shall make some brief comments about the Commission's recently published White Paper on governance.
The White Paper contains much talk, but few concrete proposals for action to benefit citizens.
It could have contained firm commitments to:
- propose a law on good administrative behaviour, to ensure the rule of law and respect for citizens by the EU administration;
- reform the way that the Commission acts as Guardian of the Treaty in order to make the procedure open, fair and understandable;
- advise officials to use their freedom of speech actively so as to promote debate and help focus citizens' attention on European issues;
- reinforce the legal advice service to citizens (EuroJus) in the Commission representations, thereby promoting the correct application of Community law throughout the Union.
But it does not.
I am sorry to say that the Commission seems to have forgotten citizenship. This neglect is illustrated in a brochure which the Commission has recently published called "Who's who in the European Union?" The brochure mentions the Charter on Fundamental Rights and the fact that the European Parliament exercises democratic control over the Commission's activities. However, it contains no reference to citizenship, or to the rights to petition the European Parliament and to complain to the Ombudsman, which the Nice Charter includes as fundamental rights of European citizenship.
I would like to use this opportunity to call the present Commission back to the road to of making European citizenship a living reality. To me, it is the only way to achieve the confidence of the citizens, which today seems more lost than ever before.
Citizenship may be less fashionable than the more technocratic sounding "governance", but there are no technical solutions to the deep gulf between the rulers and ruled in Europe. This gulf was revealed not just by the Irish referendum but by every other referendum on Europe in the last decade and also by the events in Göteborg. It can be bridged only slowly, by the development of European citizenship in an honest, fair and just way.
Mr President, Members of the European Parliament, thank you for your attention.