President. − The first item is the report (A7-0285/2011) by Iliana Malinova Iotova, on behalf of the Committee on Petitions, on the annual report on the European Ombudsman’s activities in 2010 [2011/2106(INI)].
Iliana Malinova Iotova, rapporteur. – (BG) Mr President, the European Ombudsman Service was created by the Treaty of Maastricht as one of the features of European Union citizenship. Article 24 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union provides for the right to submit a complaint to the European Ombudsman.
On 27 September 2010 it was 15 years since the European Ombudsman was created as an institution. The occasion was marked by a presentation of the strategy for its development until 2014. The protection afforded to European citizens has changed in the last 15 years, thanks to the Ombudsman’s independence and the democratic control exercised by the European Parliament over the transparency of his work. The experience acquired during these 15 years enables the Ombudsman to see the basic problems in maladministration and structural weaknesses in the relations between institutions, as well as between institutions and citizens.
In carrying out his job up to 2010, Mr Diamandouros demonstrated a commitment to raising European Union citizens’ awareness of their rights and of how they can be protected. This mainly concerns the right to good administration, the right to access European Union documents, which is sometimes refused even to us MEPs, the right to engage in dialogue with the European Union’s institutions, and the right to contact the Ombudsman.
The creation of the Ombudsman’s interactive portal and website provides irrefutable proof of this, enabling citizens to find out to whom and about what they can submit complaints. This service has been used by 19 000 people in the past year. Thanks to this portal, the number of complaints submitted to the Ombudsman in 2010 fell by 400, compared with the previous year.
However, in spite of this, even this year most of the complaints submitted have been to do with the transparency of and access to information. More than 30% of the complaints are about this.
In the tough economic climate Europe is currently experiencing, Euroscepticism is growing in most Member States. In a period of crisis, more and more countries are trying to find ways and citizens want to express their views as citizens and voice their discontent when their rights are violated. They send their complaints to Parliament’s Committee on Petitions, which sometimes delays these complaints and petitions by three or four years, making them ineffective.
I think that Mr Diamandouros is improving, through his work, the quality of transparency and Europeans’ awareness, but as he himself always says: ‘I am just one person and there are more than 700 of you.’ This is why everyone’s efforts are required to support this cause. In this respect, I would like to mention and thank the Ombudsman for his good cooperation with Parliament’s Committee on Petitions.
The European Ombudsman also works in close cooperation with his colleagues in the Member States within the so-called European Network of Ombudsmen. In 2010, in 977 cases, the complaints were sent to members of the European Network of Ombudsmen. In 2010 the Ombudsman continued to exercise his powers in an active, impartial manner, which is highlighted by the number of inquiries carried out on the basis of complaints submitted during the last year – 323 – with the majority of the inquiries concerning the European Commission. This is why we urge the Commissioner in charge of interinstitutional relations to take measures to remedy this.
Another example of the Ombudsman’s effectiveness is that he made the European Medicines Agency provide better access to its archives and documents. The Lisbon Treaty’s entry into force in 2009 means that the European Ombudsman’s powers also include the possibility of investigating maladministration within the common foreign policy and security policy, as well as the possibility of submitting special reports to Parliament’s Committee on Petitions when institutions fail to respond satisfactorily to the grievances sent to them.
Finally, I would like to express once again my support. I am confident that I will not be the only one in this Chamber to support the information campaign which Mr Diamandouros is intending to launch in connection with promoting the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as I hope that it will be an integral part of a future legislation.
Nikiforos Diamandouros, Ombudsman. − Mr President, honourable Members, thank you for this opportunity to address you. I wish to thank the Committee on Petitions and especially the Chair, Ms Mazzoni, and the rapporteur, Ms Iotova. They have offered me valuable support and advice in the report before you today, and I am deeply grateful for that.
Parliament and the Ombudsman both work to ensure that citizens and residents of the EU can enjoy their rights to the full, but do so in different ways. The Ombudsman’s mandate is more limited. I can only conduct inquiries into complaints against EU institutions, whilst you can examine what Member States are doing as well. Furthermore, Parliament, as a sovereign political body, can deal with petitions that request changes in the law or new laws. In contrast, my role is more specific: it is to help uncover maladministration and attempt to put it right.
Maladministration encompasses all kinds of poor or improper administrative behaviour, from discrimination or other violations of fundamental rights to late payments, and from publishing misleading information to failure to reply to correspondence. Unlike court rulings, my decisions are not legally binding. However, I use the power of persuasion to achieve friendly solutions with which both sides – that is, the complainant and the European bodies concerned – can be satisfied. The outcome can thus be more flexible and often faster than the courts.
After my intervention, institutions and bodies have very often settled bills, paid interest, released documents, remedied injustices and put an end to discrimination. I make efforts to help every complainant who turns to the Ombudsman, even in cases when the complaint is not within my mandate.
In January 2009, as just mentioned by Ms Iotova, I launched an interactive guide on my website, which is accessible in all 23 official languages. This guide aims to direct complainants to the body best placed to help them. The number of inadmissible complaints submitted to me has since shown a significant decline. I attribute this decline, at least in part, to the fact that, by using the interactive guide, more citizens are finding the right address to turn to the first time around. I note that since its launch more than 60 000 people have received advice through the guide.
Reducing the number of inadmissible complaints has been a long-standing demand of Parliament, and I wish to register my response to that. We should not underestimate how important it is for citizens to be guided to the most appropriate complaint-handling body from the outset and to be spared the frustrations and delays associated with having to identify the right institution on their own. In contrast to the reduction of the complaints outside my mandate, the numbers of inquiries opened and closed in 2010 – that is, 335 and 326 respectively – remained roughly stable compared to 2009. This trend confirms that more of the people turning to the European Ombudsman are doing so for the right reasons.
I am pleased to note also that, in 2010, 55% of all investigations were either settled by the institution or resulted in a friendly solution. In the other cases I issued a recommendation that was accepted by the institution, thereby satisfying the complainant, or I did not find an instance of maladministration. Only in 33 cases did I issue a critical remark or, in one case, a special report submitted to this august body. The number of critical remarks issued by my office has shown a sustained reduction in recent years. This suggests that the EU institutions are taking a more proactive role in resolving complaints and enabling win-win situations. This is obviously always preferable for the complainant and the institution concerned.
In 2010 the most common allegation examined by the Ombudsman was lack of transparency in the EU administration. This allegation arose in 33% of all closed inquiries and included refusal of information and access to documents. I note with concern that the number of transparency cases has remained depressingly and consistently high over the past few years. Although Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 has been in force for ten years now, it is still puzzling to observe some institutions struggling with the principle enshrined in the regulation: that openness is the basic rule in the EU legal order and secrecy the exception.
For my part, I will continue to insist on the fundamental right of access to documents and I will continue to endeavour to raise awareness of the right to address the Ombudsman and to petition Parliament so that citizens can best seek redress. Furthermore, I believe that the EU institutions should not only react properly and in the spirit of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 when receiving requests for access to documents, but that institutions should act proactively – I repeat, proactively – in putting documents into the public domain.
I have also taken additional measures to enhance transparency with respect to the Ombudsman’s own operations. From the beginning of this year I have started publishing information on my website about all new enquiries into complaints that I open, as opposed to those that I close. There are many other ways in which the institutions and bodies of the EU can become more citizen-friendly. In order consistently to deliver good administration – the key component of being citizen-friendly – institutions and bodies need to nurture a culture of service to citizens. A body that seeks to promote such a culture of service will encourage the members of its staff not only to respect good administration as a legal right but also to be polite, helpful and cooperative in dealing with citizens, willing to explain their activities and the reasoning behind the decisions taken, and ready to accept public scrutiny of their conduct.
A concise statement of these and other public service principles would, I believe, help promote citizens’ trust in the European civil service and the EU institutions. I have therefore set myself the task of drafting such a statement of public service principles which the conduct of EU officials should reflect.
In order to take account of the best practices which exist in the Member States, I asked my national colleagues for information and their views. Once that process was completed I launched a public consultation on the draft statement of public service principles earlier this year, to which I have received numerous valuable contributions. Next month I shall publish a report on the consultation and its outcome. Much more still needs to be done. A recent Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the Ombudsman and the Parliament reveals that one major challenge we face is that most European citizens are not aware of their rights. For example, more than 70% of the 27 000 respondents did not feel sufficiently informed about the Charter of Fundamental Rights. A further 13% had never even heard of the Charter. In addition, many citizens do not know where to turn if they encounter problems either with the application of EU law in general or in the exercise of their rights, whether at regional, national or European level.
To conclude, although it is clear to me that much has been achieved to date, it is equally clear to me that there is much more work ahead for all of us – Ombudsmen, Parliament, the other institutions and the European network of Ombudsmen – in order to enhance citizens’ trust in the EU and to consolidate a culture of service in the institutions. Closer cooperation between all of us, engaging in systematic dialogue, learning from best practices whenever and wherever they can be found, allocating more resources to responding to citizens’ enquiries and complaint handling are all key aspects of building trust, of serving citizens and of helping them enjoy their rights more fully.
I am certain that in the years to come we will achieve much more in that direction and, in so doing, we shall make our modest contribution to the deepening of the rule of law and to the enhancement of the quality of democracy. Honourable Members, I look forward to your remarks, and I welcome the presence of Commissioner Kroes.
Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the Commission. − Mr President, what a great start to the day: firstly to replace my dear colleague Maroš Šefčovič; secondly, to sit next to the Ombudsman, and thirdly, to be involved in a discussion about a very important issue. I would like to congratulate the honourable Member, Ms Iotova, on her report, which is one of those base elements where we can start the discussion.
I welcome this report. As the Ombudsman’s report it represents a good start, one which is closer to the European citizen. Especially with regard to Ms Iotova’s report, it offers a clear and exhaustive overview of the activities of the Ombudsman – not only for the past year – and is also a very useful tool for the other institutions.
Let me also take the opportunity to thank the Ombudsman personally for his report, which reflects the constructive relations our institutions have built together and which show the outside world that we are working in close cooperation. This does not mean that we always agree 100% on everything but, if that were the case, it would be less challenging.
Relations between the Commission and the Ombudsman are very fruitful and very positive. There are some outstanding issues on which both parties are committed to making every effort to reach mutual understanding. Since the Commission is the main Union institution that takes decisions which have a direct impact on citizens, I believe there is nothing unusual in it being the principal object of inquiries. So there is nothing new here and we should not be surprised.
As regards cases with critical and further remarks, these are specially registered and closely followed by the Ombudsman, who publishes a study every year on each institution’s follow-up to his critical and further remarks. Of course we need to be aware that your attention is not confined to the one moment when you make a remark and that the follow-up is also closely monitored.
Last year the Commission was able to follow up 31% of the critical remarks issued by the Ombudsman., which represents a considerable proportion. It is worth noting that the number of critical remarks addressed to the Commission continues to decrease, representing 12% of the inquiries closed in 2010. If you compare this with 14% in 2009 and 16% in 2008, 12% is not a bad score. It reflects the fruitful efforts by the Commission to improve its administration and to develop further the principles of a genuine culture of service.
I am aware that one of the Ombudsman’s most frequent concerns relates to the alleged lack of transparency of the Commission, including the refusal to provide information. I am committed to further tackling such cases. However, I would like to note that in this field the Commission thoroughly examines all the inquiries addressed to it by the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman often closes his inquiries with critical and further remarks because the Commission has not respected deadlines during the procedures. That is clear and follows the complaints request for access to a file. The Ombudsman points out that a third of the complaints deal with requests for information or for public access to documents.
In 2010 he closed 23 inquiries and opened 22 new ones. However, the number of complaints must be seen in perspective. In 2010 the Commission handled more than 6 000 requests for access to documents and 5 000 requests were granted. Everything is relative, but please take into account that 5 000 requests were granted. The Commission took 122 decisions on confirmatory applications, of which 22 led to a complaint to the Ombudsman. These figures show that the Commission duly respects citizens’ fundamental right of access to documents.
Regarding the recast of the regulation, the Commission submitted a proposal in 2008 which is still at first reading in Parliament. No comment, only a note: with a view to complying with the Lisbon Treaty, the Commission submitted a second proposal in March this year, and, as I can tell by his body language, the Ombudsman welcomes this move to achieve rapid compliance with the Treaty by extending the right of access to all institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the EU.
As regards the Ombudsman’s special report sent to the Parliament in 2010 and regarding a complaint on access to Commission documents – the ‘Porsche’ affair – I regret that this special report was sent shortly after the Commission had taken a final decision on the case. We are collegial and we are open to each other, so I imagine that from our side we are allowed to make that kind of remark. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that the time taken to reach that decision was excessive, even if it was due to the failure of the third party to respond to the Commission’s proposal. The picture tends to be clearer when we have all the facts than when we do not.
I would like to stress that the Commission is fully committed to sincerely cooperating with the Ombudsman and that it does not have any intention of obstructing the Ombudsman’s work in any way. I would not dare to say anything different. This is Maroš’s text and I am also completely committed to it.
Finally, the Commission – like the Iotova report – also encourages the Ombudsman to continue to promote the European Network of Ombudsmen, with a view to developing a comprehensive database and better informing EU citizens about the apportioning of responsibilities between the European Ombudsman, the national ombudsmen and Parliament’s Committee on Petitions. The Commission looks forward to the Ombudsman’s statement of public service principles, which was recently the subject of a public consultation open to national ombudsmen, colleagues and other interested parties. The Commission contributed to this public consultation by stressing that public service principles are well settled in staff regulations and in different Commission codes, such as the Commission’s Code of Good Administrative Behaviour.
The Commission will always be willing to further reinforce its culture of service and ensure the coherence of its actions in those fields which are most widely covered by the Ombudsman’s inquiries.
Mariya Nedelcheva, on behalf of the PPE Group. – (BG) Mr President, I would first of all like to congratulate the rapporteur, Ms Iotova, for her fine, comprehensive report.
Mr Diamandouros, your job is of paramount importance in terms of strengthening citizens’ trust in our institutions because we must never lose sight of the principle of good administration, and we must never take success for granted, stop striving and work even harder for our citizens.
This is precisely why the reports on the European Ombudsman’s annual activities are of such great significance in terms of improving the work of our institutions for the benefit of Europe’s citizens. I would like to draw your attention to a few points.
First of all, 2010 marked the re-election of Mr Diamandouros as European Ombudsman, the institution’s 15th anniversary, a new look for the annual report and a new strategy. All of this highlights the considerable experience that has been acquired and the desire to make progress. I would like to mention the reduction in the number of complaints compared with the 2009 figure, as well as the continuing trend for a large proportion of the complaints to relate to the transparency of and access to information.
We should not forget the importance of transparency. Transparency is the rule, but confidentiality the exception. The Lisbon Treaty also equipped the European Ombudsman with another important instrument: the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which became legally binding in the majority of Member States, and the right to good administration acquired legal value. The European Ombudsman should make the most of this new, sound legal basis to carry out his job successfully.
Good cooperation with the new European External Action Service and the European Council is also so vital. It is important for the European Ombudsman to continue to support the activities of the European Network of Ombudsmen, and for us to continue setting up a comprehensive database. This is so that European citizens are better informed about the distribution of responsibilities between the European Ombudsman, the national ombudsmen and our Committee on Petitions, because we are all defending the interests of Europe’s citizens and bear responsibility for strengthening trust in Europe’s institutions.
Lidia Joanna Geringer de Oedenberg, on behalf of the S&D Group. – (PL) Mr President, 27 September 2010 marked the 15th anniversary of the European Ombudsman institution. In this decade and a half, the Ombudsman completed more than 3 800 inquiries into possible maladministration and answered more than 36 000 complaints received from individual citizens or businesses of the European Union who felt they had been victims of mistakes or omissions on the part of European institutions or agencies. In order to emphasise the important role played by the office of the Ombudsman, it is worth reminding ourselves that 2 667 complaints were registered last year alone. Particular praise is due to the Ombudsman’s initiative to publish regular studies examining the EU institutions’ follow-up to his critical remarks.
From year to year the trust of citizens in the Ombudsman’s office increases and his modus operandi is, equally, becoming more user-friendly. As a result of promotional activities and improvements introduced into the procedure for lodging complaints, nearly 58% of complaints received last year were submitted online, which expedited the whole procedure of dealing with them, while the average duration of proceedings was reduced to less than nine months which, unfortunately, is still too long for citizens.
Quite a few complaints could have been avoided if citizens had had easier access to documents of the EU institutions. Transparency in the decision-making process and responsibility of the EU institutions should be the basis for contacts with citizens. The report, however, shows clearly that those issues related to as many as 33% of the total number of inquiries in 2010. I am, therefore, looking forward to concrete action being taken in order to improve this situation also. I would like to use this occasion to emphasise the continuous and excellent nature of cooperation between the European Ombudsman and the Parliamentary Committee on Petitions on which I am serving for the second term.
I hope that the European Ombudsman institution will not stop improving its activities aimed at guaranteeing the residents of the European Union their ability to exercise their rights. I wish further success to the Ombudsman, Professor Nikiforos Diamandouros, who has held the position successfully since 2003. I personally appreciate his work very much. Finally, I would also like to congratulate the rapporteur, Ms Iotova, for her excellent performance.
Edward McMillan-Scott, on behalf of the ALDE Group. – Mr President, I would like to join other colleagues in thanking Ms Iotova for an excellent report into what appears to be an admirable year for the Ombudsman. It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee on Petitions once again. I first served on it 27 years ago for a period. At that time there was no Ombudsman and no effective procedure for complaints into maladministration by the EU institutions, but today we can reflect not only on the fact that the Ombudsman’s office is there, is fully staffed, has a budget and has a mandate, but that its mandate has been increased by the Lisbon Treaty to include foreign and defence policy and the new External Action Service. This new scope will be a challenge for the Ombudsman, but I am sure he will meet it, as he always does, with the full cooperation of the European Parliament, and especially its Committee on Petitions.
It is important that when maladministration is alleged there is a framework within which this can be decided. I am pleased to see that the Ombudsman is promulgating a statement of public service principles which our civil servants in Parliament, the Commission and elsewhere within the EU can read and understand and follow. It is good to see, too, that the Ombudsman is using very frequently a process of conciliation before a formal procedure is begun. This is all extremely encouraging and, from my group’s point of view, we would like Mr Diamandouros to continue his excellent work and to endorse fully the report by Ms Iotova, which we adopted in committee on 13 June. We would like to thank you all for your work.
Marek Henryk Migalski, on behalf of the ECR Group. – (PL) Mr President, Mr Diamandouros, Commissioner, Ms Iotova has told us that, indeed, most complaints addressed to the Ombudsman relate to activities of the European Commission. This is a classic example of one branch or body of the European Union finding solutions to problems created by another body within the EU. Unfortunately, it is a classic example of growing bureaucracy which, according to some sociological laws, is inevitable. Mr McMillan-Scott told us correctly that the Ombudsman has the appropriate staff. Unfortunately, there are already 64 of them. The budget of the Ombudsman institution is already nearly EUR 10 million. The question naturally suggests itself as to whether the important work carried out by the Ombudsman should really require such a budget and the involvement of so many people. These doubts explain why my group will abstain from voting on the Iotova report.
Margrete Auken, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. – (DA) Mr President, the image that EU citizens have of the EU is one of enormous and inaccessible bureaucracy, and it is difficult to dispel that image. When we talk about making 2013 the ‘Year of the Citizens’ there is a fair chance that it will become farcical. In other respects, we have made huge strides in enabling the participation of citizens, first and foremost with our Ombudsman, whose annual report we are grateful for, and we are today debating Ms Iotova’s splendid report. I would like to thank her and my fellow Members for the fact that we can indeed be very proud of this report.
The thinking behind the legislative amendments concerning administration is clear: the EU’s administration must be for the benefit of citizens. It is the citizens who must have confidence in the system, and it must be their experience that it works. We have laid down requirements concerning sound administration in the Charter, making it mandatory for the EU institutions, and we have improved the legal basis for public access to documents, so that the already splendid Regulation (EC) No 1047 can be even better. The problem is simply that important elements of the Commission and the Council do not want to play ball. For them, it is still the task of the administration to protect the people in power from the citizens. In 2008, we experienced disastrous opposition to the improvements to Regulation (EC) No 1041, and it will probably be a battle to get the Commission to propose the legislation that we need concerning sound administration. If it is to be secure/safeguarded, we must have legislation on this. This is also stated in paragraph 29 of the report.
The fact that most complaints received by the Ombudsman concern the Commission does not inspire confidence, and it is worrying – and this is something that I have to say to the Commissioner – that the number of these complaints is rising. After all, the Commission is central to the EU. It is the Commission that is supposed to ensure that the EU develops in accordance with European values and it also has the exclusive right to table legislative proposals. On that basis, it is alarming that prominent officials in fact believe that the Commission should still protect itself from the citizens. I have heard of one prominent official from the Directorate-General for the Environment who did not even want to grant access to the infringement procedures once a case was closed because he believed that it could harm confidence within the system. No, it is the citizens who must have confidence in us, not the other way round! That is the way the system should work. This is not a question of culture. There is not a Nordic culture of openness and a southern culture of corruption. Am I permitted to be here? A culture of openness is something that we should have everywhere. Our Ombudsman is Greek, and we cannot say that the people in the south do not go in for openness.
Lastly, allow me to ask the Ombudsman to pay attention to one thing in the budget that we are talking about. What does it cost for the Ombudsman to be based in Strasbourg – a long way from his work – instead of being based where he works? I would like to ask the Ombudsman to give us clear figures so that we can see what we could save if we moved him close to his work.
Nikolaos Chountis, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group. – (EL) Mr President, I agree and support Ms Iotova’s report on the Ombudsman’s annual report 2010. I have read the annual report by the Ombudsman, Mr Diamandouros, I have a personal opinion on his work and I think that he deserves to be congratulated on it.
I believe that it is only to be expected that the crisis gripping the European Union in general and certain countries in particular and the increasing democratic deficit will result in more infringements of fundamental rights of European citizens. This is proven, in my opinion, by the fact that complaints against the Commission have increased. It is not simply the role that the Commission plays in the institutional construct; it is that, recently, more and more policies have been coming out of that institution and the problem I have is that – as the complaints addressed to Mr Diamandouros illustrate – we do not know if the problem is one of maladministration or of deliberate policy that undermines citizens’ basic rights.
I think that, in numerous cases, it is the latter. That is why complaints have increased against the Commission, which represents these conservative and, ultimately, anti-democratic policies, of which I have a great many examples.
Moreover, the fact that complaints to the European Ombudsman have fallen compared with the previous year does not mean that Mr Diamandouros is not doing his job properly. It means, in my opinion, that the European Ombudsman is also facing a crisis of confidence, like all the EU institutions; disappointed European citizens see no point in taking recourse even to the European Ombudsman when they see that there is a problem.
Finally, I think that we should give the European Ombudsman more support in his work; in particular, we need to start an information campaign on his role and on the options available to European citizens when they take recourse to the European Ombudsman, because it would appear from the geographical distribution of complaints that numerous countries account for a very small proportion of complaints.
Nikolaos Salavrakos, on behalf of the EFD Group. – (EL) Mr President, I too should like to take my turn in commenting positively on the annual report on the excellent work carried out by the European Ombudsman in 2010 and on Ms Iotova’s report, which contains a great deal of information.
A statesman in ancient Rome used to say: ‘Carthago delenda est’. He always finished his speeches with that phrase and Carthage did indeed fall and was destroyed. Where is our Carthage today? Our Carthage today is the attitude of the administration, which has no respect for its citizens, and corruption. As far as corruption is concerned, there is nothing your institutional can do, Mr Diamandouros. However, you can do a great deal to consolidate a spirit of respect for citizens within the administration.
According to the statistics in the report under consideration today, you received 2 667 complaints from citizens, companies, associations, non-governmental organisations and people resident and established in the European Union in 2010. Despite the drop compared with 2009, I personally consider that this institution is well-established in the minds of European citizens; however, as I understand it, they have not yet determined the extent of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction and they are taking recourse to him on matters that fall outside his jurisdiction.
Of course I understand that there are cases in which citizens cannot define the concept of the principle of subsidiarity that underpins the legal aspects of how the Union operates. However, even in cases submitted to the Ombudsman which fall outside his jurisdiction, I think that it is becoming clear that he is being recognised as an institution, as a refuge for people seeking justice. That is the most important thing.
Thus, Mr Diamandouros, of the above complaints, from what I have seen of the statistics, only 744 or 27% fell within your jurisdiction. However, it is the majority, the 63% of the people who took recourse to you, who vest greater responsibility in you. Everyone is turning to your institution. I consider that the way in which you operate this institution will restore the confidence of the citizens of Europe in a model and in a European Union whose credibility today, because of the economic crisis, is causing tremendous insecurity.
Angelika Werthmann (NI). – (DE) Mr President, Commissioner, Mr Diamandouros, ladies and gentlemen, the annual report for 2010 has been presented to us and shows clearly that complaints regarding administrative abuses and weaknesses in the European Union institutions have declined in number since 2009, dropping from 3 098 to 2 667. It should be noted that you, Mr Diamandouros, were able to bring investigations to a conclusion, as well as initiating new inquiries.
The most common problem last year was public access to documents – access to information per se is already regulated in Article 15(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 42 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The number of complaints clearly indicates that the relevant legal framework needs to be examined and revised on a continuous basis. At the same time, however, I would also call for a responsible approach from the institutions in relation to the transparency initiative to which they have subscribed.
I would like to close by thanking you, Mr Diamandouros, for another year of appreciable work. I look forward to continued positive cooperation with you over the coming years.
Erminia Mazzoni (PPE). – (IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, the Ombudsman’s office carries out an extremely important socio-political role, even though I realise that this does not exonerate it from responding to my fellow Members’ legitimate questions on the size of the budget; conversely it underlines even more the productivity of his efforts.
The Ombudsman’s office, SOLVIT and the Committee on Petitions together comprise Europe’s network for the protection of citizens’ rights. In reality, through the various procedures, which are explained so well in the resolution, the Ombudsman seeks to provide full expression to representation – that basic principle of democracy – by filling communication gaps, clearing up ambiguities and making the system more transparent. As many of my fellow Members have pointed out, in this report on the year 2010, we can see an overall drop in the number of petitions – which does not diminish the sense of citizens’ civic participation – but at the same time an increase in the number of complaints against the Commission in its executive role.
I am pleased with the positive approach adopted by Ms Kroes and the content of her speech, because I think the Commission ought to take some directions from today’s debate and from the work that the citizens protection network performs. I have the utmost trust in the good faith, commitment and goodwill shown by Ms Kroes and I should therefore like to see a clear message taken from this: the Commission has too many bureaucratic instruments and too many superstructures: Perhaps some people confuse authority with authoritarianism, which compromises the healthy relationship with citizens. I therefore thank the Ombudsman for his work, as well as Ms Kroes and the rapporteur, Ms Iotova, for their excellent work.
Monika Flašíková Benová (S&D). – (SK) Mr President, Mr Diamandouros, you were re-elected by the European Parliament in its plenary session on 20 January 2010, and this very fact suggests that the European Parliament has confidence in your work and in your office, and that you serve your position well. We can state with pleasure that your high quality work has continued after the broadening of the Ombudsman's mandate by the Lisbon Treaty and that you have discharged your new tasks excellently. At this point I would like to mention your definition of maladministration, which has been approved by the European Parliament and, subsequently, also by the European Commission. It reads as follows: –‘Maladministration occurs when a public body fails to act in accordance with a rule or principle which is binding upon it.’ For our institutions this means compliance with the principles of the rule of law, good governance and fundamental rights. Likewise, in its Article 41, the Charter of Fundamental Rights includes the right to good administration as a fundamental right for EU citizens and is binding upon the administrations of EU institutions.
Maladministration was revealed in 12% of cases closed in 2010. You obtained a positive outcome for the complainant or complainants in seven cases by making draft recommendations that were accepted. In 2010 you also issued sixteen new draft recommendations. In the annual report, special attention is paid to the strategy for the current term of office. This primarily concerns the broadening and deepening of contacts with the EU institutions and civil society. This is one of the key tasks in terms of the future of the European Union and therefore, Mr Ombudsman, we shall keep our fingers crossed for you. For many citizens it is your office (and you personally) that provides a kind of last resort in the hope that their cases will be resolved. We could envy you in this task, but we sincerely wish you all the best and hope that you will continue to help the citizens of the Member States of the European Union with your high quality work.
Jacek Olgierd Kurski (ECR). – (PL) Mr President, first of all I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to Mr Diamandouros and the entire team of the Ombudsman’s office on their successful performance in 2010. The statistics speak for themselves: more and more cases are being resolved, fewer and fewer critical remarks are being made and it is taking a shorter time to make decisions – nine months instead of 13, in other words, a decrease of nearly one third. This success should set an example for the EU administration. Too much time is needed to make a decision or to provide a response to issues presenting a real challenge, which leads to increased costs or diminished competitiveness. We cannot afford this in times of crisis and should, therefore, move to a certain degree of computerisation in the EU administration. Mr Söderman, who performed the function of the Ombudsman before 2003, has also called for the introduction of such a system.
I would also like to call for an extension of the powers exercised by the Ombudsman to include issues of freedom of the press and the media in Europe. Alternatively, I believe there should be a separate specialised unit within the structure of his organisation that would occupy itself exclusively with this issue. I am aware of the fact that a similar project was once presented by fellow Members from the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Today, when the present government in Poland is trying to curtail the freedom of the right-wing press, I support such a project fully.
Tatjana Ždanoka (Verts/ALE). - Mr President, I have some remarks to make, in my one minute, to the Ombudsman and the Commissioner.
First, in 2010 most of the complaints to the Ombudsman referred to the lack of transparency in the EU administration. I want to urge the Council, which is absent today, and the Commission to use secrecy as an exception and not as a rule. Very often, after reading documents in the so-called ‘secret room’ of the European Parliament, as a Member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, I pose myself the rhetorical question of what the need is for confidentiality for one document or another.
Second, we also know that the biggest proportion of enquiries in 2010 related to the European Commission and share completely the Ombudsman’s concerns about the high number of unsatisfactory replies by the Commission to his critical remarks. Our own experience in the Committee on Petitions, when dealing with certain unsatisfactory replies from the Commission, shows that his enquiries are not poorly reasoned.
We hope that the further work by the Ombudsman will impact positively on the Union’s administrative culture. Finally, I too would like to thank Ms Iotova for her report.
Cornelis de Jong (GUE/NGL). - (NL) Mr President, I wish to compliment Mr Diamandouros for his excellent work. Transparency is unfortunately still an important ground for complaints. As the European Parliament, we are able to discuss this. Together with like-minded Members of this House from all the large political groups, I have been involved in an intensive dialogue with the Commission on the lack of transparency in relation to the composition and workings of its expert groups. We have not received any answer to our questions, either during a plenary debate or by letter. In the end, we had to block the budget item in question yesterday until such time as the Commission complies with our wishes.
Access to documents is a similar case. We face a wall of resistance. The Commission is sticking to its proposals to grant what will, in fact, be less access to documents than provided for by the existing rules. It is therefore no surprise that the Ombudsman last year submitted a special report on this very subject to Parliament. This had been prompted by a complaint concerning the Commission’s refusal to allow access to letters from Porsche to the previous Commissioner, Mr Verheugen, on CO2 emissions from cars. This was a justified request because the letters might have indicated the extent to which there was a conflict of interest between the Commissioner and the motor industry.
It is extraordinarily regrettable that the Commission did nothing to meet the legitimate demands of the Ombudsman in this case. Through its reluctance where openness is concerned, the Commission is creating scope for suspicion on the part of this Parliament and the citizens. I wish the Ombudsman much courage and determination as he continues his activities.
Andrew Henry William Brons (NI). - Mr President, there is much to praise in the clear and easily comprehensible report of the Ombudsman. The different categories of alleged maladministration were defined precisely and the criteria for admissibility were explained clearly. However, Greek ombudsmen should beware eurosceptics bearing compliments.
The word ‘ombudsman’, I am reliably told, means ‘grievance man’. I am afraid it is the only Swedish word I know. There are many grievances about the European Union among British nationals, but they have little to do with time limits, incorrect applications of procedural rules, requests for information or even that most heinous of all offences, discrimination. They concern loss of sovereignty, net contributions to the budget, embrace of globalism, prescriptive social liberalism and the absence of referendums. I am sure that these would all fail the admissibility criteria, but they are real grievances nevertheless.
Philippe Boulland (PPE). – (FR) Mr President, the European Ombudsman vigorously investigates complaints against the institutions and bodies of the European Union. This instrument is necessary to facilitate the free movement of our businesses and citizens. It is also a tremendous guarantee, in particular in response to critics of the Union, who say all too often that it is nothing more than a bureaucratic machine without oversight, which is clearly nonsense. Europe is working hard on itself thanks to the European Ombudsman in particular.
Nonetheless, I should like to mention a finding, which I bitterly regret, in which the Commission comes in for heavy criticism. First, there are the figures: the proportion of inquiries instituted by the Ombudsman into the European Commission is 65% and not 12%.
There are also the stakeholders: many businesses come to see us to tell us they are baffled by the European Commission which turns a deaf ear to their requests, especially as regards access to documents or transparency in decision-making. Not many people can make sense of this.
Finally, let me share my own personal experience with you. I must admit that I have occasionally been shocked by the reactions of some services of the European Commission appearing before the Committee on Petitions. As you know, the Commission tells us its position on petitions, which we always take into consideration and which is necessary. However, we occasionally see representatives of the Commission refuse to answer questions from a Member of Parliament or hide behind clichés and waffle, almost as well as politicians, when faced with citizens advancing their causes.
I would therefore like to remind you that Europe must have a human face, that, behind the administrative problems identified and solved by the Ombudsman are Europeans relieved at being listened to but disappointed by this behaviour and citizens adversely affected by their confrontation with the institutions. This may create feelings of revolt, incomprehension and, in the long run, perhaps, euroscepticism.
I fervently want these criticisms and those of the Ombudsman against the institutions in general to be heard.
Metin Kazak (ALDE). – (BG) Mr President, I too would like to congratulate Ms Iotova for her diligent work on this report. It monitors the activities of Mr Diamandouros following his re-election in 2010 and, in particular, following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which expanded the European Ombudsman’s remit.
The report clearly shows that European citizens are becoming increasingly aware of their basic right to good administration, which is guaranteed under the Charter of Fundamental Rights. I also recommended, on the 15th anniversary of the institution’s creation, for the European Ombudsman to launch a new strategy by 2014, which should be focused on promoting an administrative service culture.
I am pleased to mention that the new Member States are among the top 10 which submitted most complaints in 2010. Bulgaria is in seventh place, which clearly shows that Bulgarian citizens are looking to defend their human rights. I think that the European Ombudsman must support national ombudsmen from the recently admitted Member States in enhancing their competence. It also goes without saying that having access to information is a fundamental, key issue, and European institutions, most of all the Commission, should apply the principles of good governance.
Oldřich Vlasák (ECR). - (CS) Mr President, Mr Ombudsman, when I read my speech from last year on this topic, I realised that my words were still relevant. The aim of your organisation is to resolve cases of injustice committed by the European bureaucracy more cheaply and in a way that is more accessible to citizens. These are cases that it would not be possible to resolve by normal appeal procedures or judicial review. Your resolution of the problems of complainants should therefore be fundamentally cheaper, quicker and more flexible than a judicial resolution.
In your report, for 2010 I read that you had a budget of EUR 9.3 million last year, and that you registered 2 667 cases. This averages EUR 3 500 per case. In comparison, the European Court of Human Rights last year registered 61 300 cases, and had a budget of EUR 58.4 million. This works out at EUR 953 per case. I know that any comparison is a simplification. I would nevertheless like to ask you for ideas and explanations as to why you are so much more expensive than judicial institutions.
Ágnes Hankiss (PPE). – (HU) Mr President, in our crisis-ridden world it is difficult – as many of those who have spoken today have said – to overemphasise the importance of transparency. It is clearly no coincidence that the issue of transparency is a key element in both the European Ombudsman’s report and Ms Iotova’s report. This is heartening and welcome news for Europe’s citizens. To be able to cope with the crisis it is very important that they understand what is happening around them and why, and the thinking behind decisions by institutions.
I think one of the most important elements of the Ombudsman’s mission is that he must never be biased. In other words, the Ombudsman must strike a balance between the transparency demanded by citizens and the secrecy required in other cases to protect EU interests.
Why am I telling you this? Because in a certain respect, the establishment of the European External Action Service has created a new situation by bringing European security and defence policy issues within the scope of the Ombudsman, and this is also the area where, alongside legitimate demands for access to information, there are a great many instances of actions that I would sooner class as political marketing and which, in some cases, could pose a threat to our security.
This is why it is particularly important to establish and publicise clear standards concerning confidentiality, because I believe that having clear standards would also give the Ombudsman the necessary resolve and moral authority to opt for confidentiality when the need arises – and we have already seen an example of this.
Allow me to add that we, the Members of this House, are European citizens too. In the course of my work on security policy, for example, I myself have encountered more than once situations where very important Council documents have been classified as confidential and I have not been able to read them. It would have been very useful to see the reasons for this, and I urge the Ombudsman to take up this issue.
Allow me to conclude by quoting from the report, which states: ‘Openness is the rule and secrecy the exception.’
Nessa Childers (S&D). - Mr President, I should also like to thank the rapporteur. Scrutiny, transparency and freedom of speech are all central tenets of our democratic process. However, freedom of speech is only effective if somebody is there to listen. The European Ombudsman exists to ensure that our citizens are listened to and last year performed that job competently, receiving 2 667 complaints from across Europe.
It is vital that this process be built upon and that it continues. There is, though, much still to be done in the field of transparency in the EU. Lobbying in the European institutions and indeed in many Member States can still sometimes resemble the Wild West. Members should firstly be aware of this anomaly and secondly should work to improve the transparency of our workplace in order to provide an example to other democratic institutions across the EU.
Lena Kolarska-Bobińska (PPE) . – (PL) Mr President, Mr Diamandouros, it is very nice to hear so much praise. I think it is deserved, Mr Diamandouros. I would just like to make two or three remarks regarding your work itself. It seems to me that since the number of complaints is now going down, it may be worth spending more time on developing the procedures themselves, the system of communication itself, the flow of information and public access to documents. It is also worth considering what is causing the decrease in the number of complaints: is it the result of a continued improvement in the performance of the EU institutions or is it, perhaps, that the public does not find the EU institutions responsive enough?
I voted for you, I endorsed you, and I think it was a very good choice. Let us think, however, what more can be done at the moment to create a better flow of information and better contact. We should not just be resolving complaints, we should be building a better system. I know you are already doing this, and this is important. My fellow Member from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, Mr Migalski, said that his group is going to abstain from voting on your report because of your budget, because you have so many people and so on. I do think you should be given our support, but we should also expect action which would not only resolve individual cases but would establish certain more general principles.
Anneli Jäätteenmäki (ALDE). – (FI) Mr President, the openness of decision-making and administration is one of the basic conditions of democracy. Poor and lethargic administration weakens the public’s faith in the entire European Union.
The role of the European Ombudsman in the past 16 years has proven to be an essential one. The option to complain about a wrong administrative decision or, for example, arrogant and unfair treatment on the part of an official, is a preventive measure, and that is important. Unfortunately, the European Union has not as yet established a law on good governance, and there is an urgent need to do so.
I would like to thank the European Ombudsman for shortening the times needed to deal with complaints, and he and his excellent office have done a lot of work in this area. I would also like to praise the Ombudsman for having worked to increase transparency in the European Union. We have a lot do to concerning this matter: the European Union moves at a snail’s pace.
Phil Prendergast (S&D). - Mr President, I welcome the continued efforts made by the Ombudsman to improve transparency and access to information within the European institutions. The reduction in critical remarks delivered in the Ombudsman’s report from 55 in 2007 to 33 in 2010 can be interpreted as an enhancement of transparency within the European institutions.
Secondly, we need to establish a web portal for the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions, similar to that of the European Ombudsman’s Office. Such a web portal is of the utmost importance to the committee if we are to increase the amount of admissible applications by our citizens. This would enhance Parliament’s responsiveness to citizens’ complaints with regard to maladministration, as well as their trust in the laws that we make and in their proper implementation.
Elena Băsescu (PPE). – (RO) Mr President, I also wish to begin by welcoming this report, 15 years after the creation of the institution of the European Ombudsman.
Adjustments have been made through permanent contact with petitioners to meet current requirements. I would remind you here of the decrease in the time required to resolve a complaint and the possibility for the Ombudsman to act by virtue of his office.
I believe that this mechanism has made the functioning of the European Union more transparent. Thus, citizens can now challenge problems existing in administration at European level. Bureaucracy has unfortunately had a negative impact in some situations. Here I wish to stress the refusal of the European Commission to provide complete information on administrative proceedings conducted by the Ombudsman. I was even a shadow rapporteur for such a case. Institutions do not always comply with Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 regarding access to documents. This worsens the democratic deficit from which they suffer.
I therefore believe that the Ombudsman should be encouraged to cooperate with the entire European institutional system, including with the specialised agencies. The fall in the number of complaints lodged with the Ombudsman in 2010 is an indication of the need to raise awareness of his work more intensively among citizens. I therefore support the presentation of the annual activity report in an extended framework, involving the other European institutions but also the public.
Silvia-Adriana Ţicău (S&D) . – (RO) Mr President, transparency, access to information and respect for the rights of European citizens are vital to ensuring confidence between citizens and institutions. When the Ombudsman presents its annual report to the Committee on Petitions, representatives of the Commission, the administration, the European Parliament, the Council and other institutions should also be invited to take part in the discussion.
The complaints received by the Ombudsman in 2010 fall into seven categories: openness – 107 complaints, the role of the Commission as guardian of the Treaties – 51, institutional matters – 46, administration and staff regulations – 39, staff selection procedures – 39, execution of contracts – 24, award of tenders and grants – 20. The largest number of complaints came from Spain, Germany and Poland. 65% of the inquiries opened by the Ombudsman in 2010 concerned the European Commission and 10% the European Personnel Selection Office. Particular attention should be paid to EPSO given that tens of thousands of candidates take part in its competitions.
I call on the Commission and other institutions responsible to improve the current situation as quickly as possible.
Heinz K. Becker (PPE). – (DE) Mr President, Mr Diamandouros, Commissioner, honourable Members of the Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament, thank you for this informative report from an institution which was established for the citizens of Europe. In numerical terms, the report on the background to the maladministration in the context of the activities of the EU institutions is proof of the importance of the work of the Ombudsman.
The analyses contained in the report, which call for more transparency and improvements, greater speed and a change in the often authoritarian approach taken in many areas of the Commission administration, speak for themselves.
I want to focus on one aspect of the report, however, which is of more fundamental significance than might appear at first sight. This is the fact that there has been a decrease in complaints of almost 15% between 2009 and 2010, a positive figure which, however, begs the question whether our national governments and institutions have done, and are continuing to do, all they can to ensure that our citizens throughout Europe are sufficiently aware of this institution and the direct channel to the Committee on Petitions. I doubt the determination of our Member States in this regard.
Vilija Blinkevičiūtė (S&D). – (LT) Mr President, I would like to thank the rapporteur Iliana Iotova and the Ombudsman for the annual report and the work done to inform European Union citizens about the opportunities available to them to submit complaints concerning maladministration in the European Union and to encourage citizens to take advantage of their rights. The Ombudsman’s Annual Report pays much attention to the new strategy prepared by the Ombudsman for his 2009-2014 mandate. I particularly welcome the Ombudsman’s efforts to simplify and facilitate procedures, so that it is possible to investigate complaints as quickly as possible, as well as his efforts to cooperate more closely and provide stakeholders and society with useful information in a timely manner and improve institutions’ administrative practices. I notice in the report that, in 2010, in many cases of complaints it was possible to reach amicable solutions, and this once again demonstrates the effectiveness of the Ombudsman and appropriate cooperation with other institutions. I welcome the fact that, in order to inform the public and ensure that institutions learn from their mistakes, each year the Ombudsman publishes on his website a study on the institutions’ follow-up to his remarks.
Tomasz Piotr Poręba (ECR). – (PL) Mr President, last year the current Ombudsman was elected for the next term and will remain in office until the year 2014. Shortly after being re-elected he presented his new strategy of action in the next few years in which, among other issues, he called for strengthening the dialogue with public organisations and individuals that submit complaints, improving the culture of operation in the EU administration and building closer contacts with the Ombudsmen of EU Member States. These three objectives that Mr Diamandouros has set himself deserve recognition and indicate that he takes his duties seriously. Likewise, we should express appreciation of the new system for communicating with the public that includes, among other features, an interactive guide to mechanisms available for securing the fundamental rights of the EU citizens and is available on the Internet in the 23 official languages. In the year 2010 it was used successfully by more than 20 000 people.
The best evidence of the fact that this solution is effective lies in the decreasing number of complaints submitted to the Ombudsman last year in comparison to the year 2009. Popular opinion associates the EU administration with a confusing, over-complicated and bureaucratic machine, full of incomprehensible procedures and inaccessible to the public. I am pleased that thanks to the work being done the Ombudsman, some members of the public have been able to see for themselves that it does not have to be like that at all.
(The speaker agreed to take a blue-card question under Rule 149(8))
Lena Kolarska-Bobińska (PPE). – (PL) Mr President, I have a question for Mr Poręba. Since you have rated the Ombudsman’s activities very highly, and I agree completely with this evaluation, I would like to know why Mr Migalski, who belongs to the same party as you, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, announced that the ECR Group will abstain from voting on the report, that too much money is being allocated and too many people employed, and in total, the way I understand it, why he does not rate the speech made today very highly?
Tomasz Piotr Poręba (ECR). – (PL) Mr President, in my response to Ms Kolarska-Bobińska I would like to point out that there is a certain difference of opinion within the ECR Group with respect to this issue. I assure you that this difference will be reflected today in the final vote.
Bogusław Sonik (PPE). – (PL) Mr President, I would like to join the others in congratulating the Ombudsman and his colleagues. The data for 2009 reflect a decrease in the number of complaints, and what is more, 58% of those complaints – as has already been mentioned –were lodged online, which inspires optimism. This is a clear reflection of the fact that this institution is operating successfully. The interactive guide that has also been mentioned here today is available on the Internet site and should inspire the Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament to create a similar tool. At the same time, of some concern are the data showing that as many as 65% of the total number of complaints were about the European Commission, and that 33% of all inquiries launched dealt with violations of the principle of transparency, especially as regards access to documents.
The relatively young institution of the Ombudsman is drawing constructively from its experience and is contributing toward promoting good practice of administration at European level.
Seán Kelly (PPE). – Mr President, we all benefit from having somebody looking over our shoulder and making sure we perform appropriately. In this regard, the Ombudsman is doing a very good job in holding the Commission and the other institutions to account, particularly when citizens have complaints.
When you consider that there are 500 million citizens in the European Union, the number of complaints are few. Whether this is because they have nothing to complain about or are not aware of their rights is a very debatable point. However, the Ombudsman does seem to be doing a good job with those that discover his office, and his desire to create a culture of service is entirely appropriate.
I want to conclude by asking one question. He had to make a special report to Parliament regarding the failure of the Commission to respond to findings; it took them 15 months, when the time limit was three months. Is he aware of anybody within the Commission being held to account for this and of penalties being imposed as a result?
Mairead McGuinness (PPE). – Mr President, I welcome the Ombudsman’s presence here; we have had good exchanges in the past and, while I do not serve on the Petitions Committee now, I keep an eye on his work. Mr Diamandouros, I think it is important to say – because it is in the report – that while only 27% of complaints were appropriate to your office, you did actually deal with all of the complaints. You did not leave people without some form of redress, but redirected them where it was more appropriate.
I think that is important; it is also true to say that I suspect it is only the best informed and best motivated who actually go to the Ombudsman with their complaint. There are many others who, when they fail to get a response from the Commission, do nothing at all.
You will be dealing with a complaint from an Irish constituent of mine in your 2011 report. In that case you found that the Commission had failed to respond; you acted very swiftly, and we have had a response. I wonder, when there is alleged maladministration, is it the case that the Commission just ignores emails and hopes that people will go away? If so, it is entirely wrong.
Jaroslav Paška (EFD). – (SK) Mr President, first of all I would like to express my appreciation of the work of the Office of the European Ombudsman. The fact that in 2010 more than 2 500 citizens, companies, associations, citizens and organisations turned to the Office of the Ombudsman with complaints suggests that citizens and organisations have become accustomed to using this European institution. Of course, not all the submissions with which citizens have turned to the European Ombudsman fall under the competence of his Office. Nevertheless, the submitted report confirms the relevance of this institution, in particular in relation to the correct and professional assessment of complaints from citizens regarding the procedures of the European institutions in question. The acceleration of proceedings when considering complaints compared with the previous year testifies to the improvement in and greater efficiency of the work of the Office and this serves, I believe, to confirm the good management of this Office. Going forward it would possibly be even more constructive if the Office of the Ombudsman could produce recommendations for European institutions which would help them to avoid commonly-repeated errors in their work.
Róża Gräfin von Thun und Hohenstein (PPE). – (PL) Mr President, Mr Diamandouros, I kept track of your work during your previous term of office. You inspired my profound respect even then, when I saw you in action and, also, in unusually difficult situations. I am pleased to see that more and more members of the public recognise both your office and you personally. This means that communication with the public is improving consistently. I hope this will continue. I hope more and more of the people of Europe will be aware of whom they should turn to with their problems. I categorically disagree with any plans for cutting the financing of the Ombudsman’s office, since it employs the best professionals. It is not that there are too many staff, rather that there are too few. More cases could be settled if the Ombudsman had more specialists of this level working for him. Besides, due to the fact that cases are handled at a very high level, owing to your activities, the citizens’ awareness of their rights in respect of the EU institutions and the legal culture in the European Union is reaching new standards of quality. Thank you and congratulations!
Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the Commission. − Mr President, I really appreciate all the interventions. I would like to ask you a favour, Mr President. Could you pass to two Members of this Parliament my answers, as they have left the room? One is Mr Chountis, who mentioned that the Commission has an old-fashioned view on democracy. I do not buy that, and I think that the opposite is true. Certainly, talking about my colleague Maroš Šefčovič, he is very active and he is in close cooperation with the Ombudsman, so no old-fashioned views at all.
I am not saying that we cannot just do more, but that is at stake. I really agree with Ms Mazzoni, who made a statement that is closer to reality, talking about good faith and goodwill. The other issue that is quite interesting: Mr Migalski made a remark about freedom of the media, and I have good news for him. Just ten days ago I set up a high-level group for the freedom of the media and pluralism and asked them to produce a report within a year, and I am certain that we will be back in Parliament with that report. By the way, ‘high-level’ in this context really means high-level. The Chair is taken by Ms Vīķe-Freiberga, the former President of Latvia, and the group includes Ms Herta Däubler, the former Justice Minister of Germany; Professor Maduro, the former Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice; and Ben Hammersley, a very famous journalist. So I am looking forward to that result, and I am certain that the honourable Member and his colleagues will also be interested.
Just a couple of remarks about the lack of transparency of the Commission which a couple of your honourable Members have touched on. I got that message; I do not agree. The Commission thoroughly examines all the inquiries addressed to it by the Ombudsman: there can be no doubt about that. The Commission grants requests for access to documents in more than 80% of cases. In only 2% of cases the applicant makes a confirmatory application, and these applications (which is quite remarkable) are generally made by law firms. Speaking about my former life, my experience of law firms is that they are very constructive and also very active, and this is a diplomatic way of saying what is at stake. NGOs and lobbyists are also quite active in that field.
The main reason – and I would like you to pay attention to this – for refusing access to documents is to protect ongoing investigations and the commercial interests of economic operators. These are legitimate interests which may prevent disclosure of documents. So this is not a lack of transparency; it reflects the need to strike the right balance between countervailing interests.
On the subject of the deadlines laid down in Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001, a significant number of requests – particularly those made by law firms (to mention them again: after all, this is their bread and butter) and NGOs – concern large volumes of documents or complete files of tens of thousands of pages, and I have experience with that. These are truckloads of documents, so to say. All those documents must be assessed before a decision on disclosure can be taken, and it is quite obvious that such an analysis cannot be completed within the timeframes of the regulation I mentioned before.
Nikiforos Diamandouros, Ombudsman. − Mr President, let me first say three things. I wish to thank all the Members of Parliament for their very positive, warm appraisal and approval of my report. I am deeply grateful for the very broad positive response that I have received. I am deeply grateful for the response that I have received concerning my efforts to promote a culture of service and for the work that I am trying to do to promote public service principles. So I am very much in your debt for that, and I also want to thank Ms McGuinness for her specific report and reflection on my own work.
The second thing that I wish to emphasise is to try and rectify what appears to be a misunderstanding, and I take responsibility for what must be a misunderstanding. Many members of this body are under the assumption that the decline that has been registered in my complaints is an indication of some kind of deterioration. Let me just be very clear. Over the years this Parliament has been insisting that the Ombudsman should try to reduce the number of inadmissible complaints that come to him. We have now reduced that number by 25%. The decline is therefore a success, due to the interactive guide introduced in 2009 which has helped 20 000 citizens to avoid going to the wrong place in the first instance and to be helped with where to go. So may I please insist that the decline is in fact not a failure but a success, and I am perfectly happy to explain that.
Concerning the budget, let me just point out that both in 2009 and 2011 I asked for no budget increase and no increase in my staff, precisely because I am trying to be in line with austerity. If we look at figures in terms of the budget, then I ask that we also take into account the 10 000 (more or less) requests for information and the 20 000 people who have used the interactive guide, to take into account the kind of work that the Ombudsman is doing that goes way beyond the individual complaints that are being handled. This having been said, let me also thank Ms Kroes for her own remarks, and let me just try and respond to two things.
First of all, the Ombudsman needs to be – and should be – fair, and fairness means allocating responsibility where appropriate. It is indeed the case that the Commission, being the largest institution of the Union, will necessarily receive the largest number of complaints. This is not an indication of failed administration at that level by the Commission. This notwithstanding, of course there are problems, and in fact I wish to confirm that.
This having been said, Commissioner, let me just clarify the point concerning the special report last year. The special report came to you not because of the substance of the case but because of the failure of the Commission to cooperate with me in good faith and sincerely. This was the very first time in 15 years I had had to do it, and it regrettably had to do with the Commissioner, who at that time had left. Because of the substance, yes, but I did not submit it after it had been closed, because I was addressing the procedural problem of 15 months’ delay. I want to be clear about that.
Finally I want to thank you for your references to the principles of public service. I can tell this body that I will be issuing a leaflet in the next month that will be addressed to every single member of the staff of the European institutions. This is a guide to help them with how to deal with complaints and, therefore, how to help citizens. I am moving forward with this, it is ready and is in fact being distributed.
Ms Auken, thank you for your question, I will look into the matter and I will provide you with figures. I have to look into that.
The question about public media was addressed by the Commissioner. Let me say to her that, if her expert group is in need of further information, I remain at her disposal.
A final point: complicated but succinct. There are 500 million citizens in the European Union: that is correct. But how many of them need to have contact with the European institutions is really the critical question. I suggest that the vast majority of citizens of the European Union do not need to have contact with the European institutions and therefore to have complaints that will come to me, primarily because the bread and butter issues that have to do with the Ombudsman are at national level, involving the welfare state. We do not have issues about health, education, prisons, police, social security or retirement, therefore the vast majority of the 500 million – mercifully – do not need to come to me. For that very reason I would like to at least inject this corrective into the deliberations of this body.
Finally, let me reiterate that I am enormously grateful for the support that this body has given me over the years and for its continuing support to me for resources and for my budget. I shall continue to do my very best to help Parliament to help me apply and promote good administration. I look forward to working with it and working with the other institutions, including the Commission.
Iliana Malinova Iotova, rapporteur. – (BG) Mr President, I wish to start with a huge word of thanks to all my colleagues who were involved in today’s intense discussion. In actual fact, this is perhaps the only report in the European Parliament which is aimed directly at Europe’s 500 million citizens.
It demonstrates not only the increased interest in the Ombudsman’s work, but also the awareness of how important this work is and the responsibilities he has. The very fact that some colleagues wanted to increase the Ombudsman’s powers, including freedom of the media, provides clear evidence of this. I sincerely hope that, together with the working group announced a short time ago by Commissioner Kroes, we will have opportunities to achieve more in this direction since the lack of media freedom in Europe is really assuming alarming proportions.
There is work to be done on public democracy in Europe. You see that even the fine initiative enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, put forward by citizens for a new European legislation, is stalling. This is already the second year that it cannot be implemented. This is why the Ombudsman’s work is extremely important, as is the work of Parliament’s Committee on Petitions.
I am really sorry that Commissioner Šefčovič is not in the Chamber today because he could have heard numerous definite and important proposals tabled by MEPs. I hope, Commissioner, that you will pass on to him all our proposals and comments. I wish every success both to the Commission and to the Ombudsman in his fine work.
President. − The debate is closed.
The vote will take place today at 12.30.
Written statements (Rule 149)
Zuzana Brzobohatá (S&D), in writing. – (CS) The report evaluates the activity of the European Ombudsman in 2010, but it can be emphasised that the most important part of the report is the new strategy of the Office, published on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of its establishment. In 2010, the Ombudsman recorded 2 667 complaints from citizens, businesses, associations, non-governmental organisations and regional offices (3 098 in 2009) and processed a total of 2 727 complaints. Of the investigations commenced by the Ombudsman in 2010, 65% concerned the European Commission (291 investigations), which represents an increase on the figure of 56% (191 investigations) seen in 2009, a trend I do not welcome. I agree with the Ombudsman that we should insist on providing information and documents as a basic principle in the EU, with openness the rule and secrecy the exception. Personally, I agree with the Ombudsman’s opinion that much work still remains to be done in terms of convincing officials that defensive behaviour towards the Ombudsman represents a lost opportunity for their organisations, and risks harming the EU’s overall image. Of the investigations concluded, 33% included refusals to provide information and refusals to provide access to EU documents, which I personally consider a high number. We must demand greater levels of transparency and openness in the future.