Ombudsman institutions need acceptance of their role as guardians of good administration in order to flourish and be able to work in the best interest of the public. The EU institutions have allowed my Office to realise the vision of its creators 25 years ago, namely to be a passionate defender of the EU and its citizens. My Office is small but it has a big mandate, which I will continue to give real life to.

Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman

The European Ombudsman’s history

TMaastricht Treaty

1992

Maastricht Treaty is signed, including an article establishing the European Ombudsman

The Statute of the European Ombudsman

1994

Rules setting up the Ombudsman - the Statute of the European Ombudsman - are adopted by the European Parliament

Jacob Söderman

1995

Jacob Söderman (Finland) elected by the European Parliament as the first European Ombudsman and the Office is opened

European Network of Ombudsmen

1996

European Network of Ombudsmen created: the network now brings together over 95 national and regional ombudsman offices and petitions committees from 36 countries

Code of Good Administrative Behaviour

2001

European Parliament endorses Code of Good Administrative Behaviour, as drawn up by the European Ombudsman, setting out guidelines for the EU civil service

P. Nikiforos Diamandouros

2003

P. Nikiforos Diamandouros (Greece) elected as the second Ombudsman

Public service principles for the EU civil service

2012

Public service principles for the EU civil service presented by the European Ombudsman

Emily O’Reilly

2013

Emily O’Reilly (Ireland) elected as the third Ombudsman

Parallel inquiries

2014

Start of parallel inquiries with the European Network of Ombudsmen

Cooperation with the European Parliament

2014

Intensification of cooperation with the European Parliament through committees and hearings

Strategic investigation unit

2015

First outcomes of newly-created strategic investigation unit

Fast-Track procedure

2018

Introduction of new working methods for case handling and Fast-Track procedure for access to document cases

Emily O’Reilly

2019

Emily O’Reilly elected for a new mandate

The main areas of work of the European Ombudsman

Transparency

Transparency, public access to information and documents

Accountability

Accountability and public participation in EU decision making

EU tenders

Problems with EU tenders and grants

Fundamental rights

Respect for fundamental and procedural rights

The Ombudsman in numbers

Individuals, businesses, associations and civil society can turn to the European Ombudsman for help about problems with the EU administration.

The Office has dealt with more than 57 000 complaints in its 25 years of operating.

Most inquiries are based on complaints, but the Ombudsman can also launch own-initiative inquiries. There have been over 7 300 inquiries since the Office opened in 1995.

Inquiries opened and closed, 1995-2019

Complaints submitted and inquiries opened per country, 2019

What we do

More transparency in EU decision making

It is essential that the public has enough information to be able to follow EU policy and law making, and participate meaningfully in the EU democratic process.

Improving the transparency of EU decision making has been the focus of various inquiries, for example concerning: law making in the Council, where national governments shape EU legislation; decision making in the Eurogroup, where finance ministers decide on Eurozone policies; trade negotiations between the EU and non-EU countries; or how EU governments decide on annual fishing quotas, taking account of sustainability.

Higher ethical standards in the EU administration

People trust public administrations when they can see that they are working for the public good and maintain high ethical standards.

The EU has strong rules regarding lobbying, conflicts of interest and revolving doors – where people move between the private and public sector. However, to guarantee public trust, these rules also must be enforced and updated. Recent Ombudsman inquiries have resulted in tighter ethics rules for European Commissioners, better enforcement of rules regarding revolving doors, and guidelines for EU civil servants on how to interact with lobbyists.

A faster procedure for dealing with access to document requests

Public access to documents is essential for enabling scrutiny of EU policy and law making, as well as EU funds. As the reasons for accessing documents are often time-sensitive, the Ombudsman introduced a Fast-Track procedure to help people get the information they want while it is still relevant.

Recent inquiries have concerned travel expenses for European Commissioners, border control operations by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), and lobbying related to the European Defence Research Programme. Previous Ombudsman inquiries also led the European Medicines Agency to make publicly available the results of clinical trials for medicines.

Participatory democracy at EU level

Making it easier for people to follow and get involved with EU debates and discussions can help counteract public perception that the EU is distant and complex.

The Ombudsman has helped improve the European Citizens’ Initiative - a participatory democracy tool by which citizens can petition the European Commission to legislate on an issue - so that it is more straightforward to use. Other Ombudsman inquiries have led to greater efforts by the EU institutions to communicate in all 24 official EU languages, notably for ‘public consultations’ by the Commission, and to make websites more accessible.

Respect for fundamental rights

In additional to the more traditional rights set out in the EU treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, there are some rights that are directly relevant to the Ombudsman’s work, such as the ‘right to good administration’ and the ‘right of access to documents’.

The Ombudsman regularly references the Charter in her inquiries. One such inquiry resulted in the European Border and Coast Guard Agency setting up a complaints mechanism for those who feel their fundamental rights have been breached. Another led to trainees in EU’s foreign delegations being paid, to prevent inequality of access.

EU funds - solving problems with contracts and tenders

The Ombudsman regularly deals with cases concerning EU-funded projects, usually related to issues following audits.

If an audit uncovers a problem, EU institutions are obliged to recover the funds. However, misunderstandings or mistakes can occur, and the recovery may not be justified. The Ombudsman can help find solutions in such cases, where the organisation concerned carried out the work in good faith and delivered the project’s goals.

A recent example led the European Commission to change its position and pay costs incurred by the European University Association for a project it carried out to foster Latin-American regional cooperation.

Award for Good Administration

During inquiries, the Ombudsman and her staff regularly witness excellent work by dedicated EU civil servants. The Award for Good Administration, established in 2017, aims to bring examples of this work to a wider audience, both to spread good practice and to help bridge the gap between citizens and the EU administration.

There is an overall award and prizes for categories. Past prize winners include teams from the European Commission that worked to raise awareness about plastic pollution, the European Food Safety Authority for work highlighting risks to bees and the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity for a European cooperation project.

European Network of Ombudsmen

The European Ombudsman coordinates the European Network of Ombudsmen, which brings together national and regional ombudsmen from 96 offices in 36 European countries.

The European Ombudsman organises an annual conference to bring national and regional ombudsmen into contact with EU policy makers, to help draw attention to issues of concern. The European Ombudsman also coordinates parallel inquiries, where national ombudsman offices work together on common EU issues. An example of this was a parallel inquiry examining whether EU funds are spent in line with fundamental rights, and which made suggestions to improve how these EU funds are monitored.

Looking ahead

The European Ombudsman was established 25 years ago this year. In that time, the EU has changed profoundly, shaped by challenges, by the changing expectations of citizens and by its expanded membership.

The coming years are likely to be just as transformative, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing response set to redefine the very essence of the EU. The Union will also have to take major decisions as it tackles climate change, manages migration humanely, confronts technological advances, and asserts Europe's place in the world.

My task as European Ombudsman is to ensure that such decisions - directly affecting people’s lives - are supported by an EU administration that puts the citizen at the centre of everything that it does. By handling complaints and identifying systemic problems, I will continue to encourage the EU institutions to observe the highest standards of good administration.

Thank you for your support and engagement over these past years, and let’s continue to work together into the future.

Emily O'Reilly, European Ombudsman