REPORT on the annual report on the activities of the European Ombudsman for the year 2002 (C5-0271/2003-2003/2068 (INI))
16 June 2003
Committee on Petitions
Rapporteur: The Earl of Stockton
By letter of 10 February 2003, the European Ombudsman, Mr Jacob Söderman, forwarded his Annual Report to the European Parliament, pursuant to Article 195(1) of the EC Treaty establishing the European Community and Article 3(8) of the Decision of the European Parliament on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the European Ombudsman's duties.
At the sitting of 15 May 2003 the President of Parliament announced that he had referred this Annual Report to the Committee on Petitions as the committee responsible. (C5-0271/2003)
The Committee on Petitions had appointed The Earl of Stockton rapporteur at its meeting of 23 January 2003.
At its meetings of 30 April 2003 and 10 June 2003 the committee considered the Annual Report of the European Ombudsman and the draft report.
At the last meeting it adopted the motion for a resolution by votes unanimously.
The following were present for the vote: Vitaliano Gemelli, chairman; Roy Perry, vice-chairman The Earl of Stockton, rapporteur; Felipe Camisón Asensio, Marie-Hélène Descamps, Janelly Fourtou, Ioannis Marinos, Rainer Wieland, Stavros Xarchakos, Margot Keßler, Laura González Álvarez, Eurig Wyn, Mary Elizabeth Banotti.
The report was tabled on 16 June 2003.
MOTION FOR A RESOLUTION
European Parliament resolution on the annual report on the activities of the European Ombudsman for the year 2002 (C5-0271/2003-2003/2068 (INI))
The European Parliament,
- having regard to the Annual Report of the European Ombudsman for the year 2002 (C5-0271/2003),
- having regard to Article 43 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,
- having regard to the Treaty establishing the European Community and, in particular, Articles 21 and 195 thereof,
- having regard to its resolution of 17 November 1993 on democracy, transparency and subsidiarity and the Interinstitutional Agreement on procedures for implementing the principle of subsidiarity ; the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman' s duties ; the arrangements for the proceedings of the Conciliation Committee under Article 189 b EC.
- and, in particular, the part thereof concerning the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the European Ombudsman's duties,
- having regard to its decision 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the European Ombudsman's duties and, in particular, Article 3(8) thereof,
- having regard to its resolution of 14 July 1995 on the role of the European Ombudsman,
- having regard to Rule 47(1) of its Rules of Procedure,
- having regard to the report of the Committee on Petitions, (A5-0229/2003)
A.whereas the Charter of Fundamental Rights was solemnly proclaimed in Nice on 7 December 2000 by the Presidents of the European Parliament, Council and Commission,
B. whereas Article 41 (Right to good administration), Chapter V (Citizens’ Rights), of the Charter stipulates that every person has the right to have his or her affairs handled impartially, fairly and within a reasonable time by the institutions and bodies of the Union,
C. whereas Article 42 of the Charter stipulates that every citizen of the Union and every natural and legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State has a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents,
D. whereas Article 43 (Ombudsman) of the Charter stipulates that ‘Any citizen of the Union and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State has the right to refer to the Ombudsman of the Union cases of maladministration in the activities of the Community institutions or bodies, with the exception of the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance acting in their judicial role’,
E. whereas the Ombudsman's Annual Report was formally presented to the President of the European Parliament on 10 February 2003 and the Ombudsman, Mr Jacob Söderman, presented the report to the Committee on Petitions on 24 March 2003.; whereas the Ombudsman addressed, in his speech, several areas in which the existing cooperation between the Ombudsman's office and the Committee on Petitions and its secretariat could be further developed, including the preliminary examination of the admissibility of petitions when these allege a violation of Community law,
F. whereas the Annual Report, as in earlier years, shows the efforts by the Ombudsman to continue developing the network of national and regional Ombudsmen, with a particular emphasis on helping the offices in the applicant countries; whereas the Ombudsman when presenting his report to the Committee on Petitions brought up the possibility for joint activities with the Committee on Petitions regarding networking with national and regional Ombudsmen and Committees on Petitions,
G. whereas the statistics submitted by the European Ombudsman highlight the success achieved by his office in making all those who are in contact with the European Union administration increasingly aware of their right to make complaints to the Ombudsman; whereas there has been a steady increase in the number of complaints addressed to the Ombudsman., (see Flash Eurobarometer Annexe…)
H. whereas the results of a survey commissioned by DG Justice and Home Affairs between September 30 and October 2 2002 show that the second most familiar right conferred by Union citizenship is the right to complain to the European Ombudsman.
I. whereas the aforementioned statistics also show a considerable decrease of both the time necessary for the Ombudsman to complete an inquiry and the number of inquiries remaining open for over a year,
J. whereas the Annual Report shows the cases where no maladministration was found, where European authorities have complied with the Ombudsman's recommendations once they have been made aware of the complaint and the problem concerned or a friendly solution has been achieved, but also the number of complaints that the Ombudsman has had to close with a critical remark,
K. whereas the Ombudsman submitted two Special Reports to the European Parliament during the year 2002, whereas Parliament last year adopted resolutions on two Special Reports from previous years,
L. whereas on 6 September 2001 the European Parliament adopted unanimously the European Union Code of Good Administrative Behaviour, recommended in a Special Report by the Ombudsman in April 2000; whereas Parliament called on the Commission to submit a legislative proposal on the basis of Article 308 of the EC Treaty in order to bring the code into force as a common administrative law for all EU institutions and bodies; whereas the Commission has not yet presented such a proposal,
M. whereas the Ombudsman has declared in his annual report for the year 2001 that he will apply the principles of the code in his activities, as called for by the European Parliament in its resolution on the Ombudsman's Annual Report for the year 2000,
N.whereas the number of complaints to the Ombudsman where citizens have had justified reason to seek remedy to lack of openness and transparency in the functioning of the European institutions and administration is a matter of continuous concern in respect of the democratic legitimacy and accountability of the Union,
O. whereas Parliament supports the opinion of the Ombudsman that the Commission's policy to withhold the investigation of violations of Community law by Member States and the infringement procedure under Article 226 EC from public scrutiny works to the detriment of the effectiveness of Community law,
P. whereas in December 1999, the European Parliament received a request from the European Ombudsman aimed at amending the provisions concerning the Ombudsman's access to documents and the hearing of witnesses; whereas Parliament expressed its support for the Ombudsman's proposals in a resolution of 6 September 2001; whereas the Commission presented its Opinion on amendments to the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties on 6 March 2002,
Q. whereas the Ombudsman, replying to the Commissions opinion on 27 June 2002, regretted the negative views on the proposal, suggested in a letter of 17 December 2002 to the President of the European Parliament that due to the length of time this topic has been under discussion and the important legal developments that have taken place in, the EU, that the European Parliament withdraw the amendments submitted for Councils approval under Article 195 European Communities, and that the services of the Ombudsman and the European Parliament jointly examine the question of the revision of the Ombudsman's Statute when a new European Ombudsman has taken office on 1st April 2003,
R. whereas the European Ombudsman, Jacob Söderman, was awarded the rank of Chevalier in the Legion of Honour by French President Jacques Chirac on December 31st 2001, presented to the Ombudsman by Mme Noelle Lenoir, French Minister for European Affairs on 3 September 2002,
1. Endorses the Annual Report for 2002 submitted by the Ombudsman, which is comprehensive and detailed in its overview of the activities conducted during the year and in particular of the various cases processed;
2. Considers the role of the Ombudsman in enhancing openness and democratic accountability in the decision-making and administration of the European Union as an essential contribution towards a Union in which decisions truly are taken ‘as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen’; takes the view that the present and first European Ombudsman has established good practices in the exercise of his office, which form a solid base for further developing the role of the Ombudsman in the service of European citizens;
3. Congratulates the first Ombudsman, Jacob Söderman, on the completion of a successful and challeging term of office on 31 March 2003, where he has fully consolidated the foundations of the Institution.
4. Commends the efforts and activities by the Ombudsman, including the continuous updating of his website, with a view to making his role known to an ever wider public and to establishing networks of links with regional ombudsmen, in both the Member States and the applicant countries; welcomes the offer by the Ombudsman to develop common activities with the Committee on Petitions in respect to reinforcing the contacts and exchange of experience with national and regional Ombudsmen and Committees on Petitions;
5. Recognises the effort taken by the Ombudsman during his time in office to develop the office of Ombudsman in those countries wishing to join the Union; considers it essential to continue to strengthen the network of national and regional Ombudsmen in the applicant countries including conferences and seminars to be attended by both member state and applicant representatives;
5. Commends the success of the Ombudsman over the past year in a further reduction in the time needed for processing complaints; encourages the Ombudsman to continue gradually reducing, where this depends on the Ombudsman's office, the time needed to respond to citizens' complaints; calls on all institutions and bodies to facilitate, on their part, rapid replies to citizens when the Ombudsman has been called upon to investigate an alleged instance of maladministration in their activities;
6. Notes that the majority of inquiries conducted by the Ombudsman, as in previous years, have concerned the Commission;
7. Notes with satisfaction that in many cases European authorities have taken action to settle a complaint once they are made aware of the problem concerned and that in other cases a friendly solution has been achieved; continues to urge the relevant Community authorities to comply with the Ombudsman's draft recommendations to remedy cases of maladministration following an inquiry and to follow up the Ombudsman's further critical remarks in order to prevent similar cases of maladministration arising in the future;
8. Congratulates the Ombudsman on the two Special Reports to the European Parliament;
9. Considers that, in examining cases of maladministration and in enforcing the right of citizens to good administration pursuant to Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the principles enshrined in the European Union Code of Good Administrative Behaviour should always be applied, and regrets the failure by the Commission and other istitutions so far to adopt and apply the Code of Good Administrative Behaviour as approved by the Parliament;
10. Reminds the Commission that Parliament has called for a proposal for a general legal act on administrative procedure on the basis of Article 308 of the EC Treaty, which would be binding on all EU institutions and bodies; undertakes, in the absence of such a proposal, to make use of its right under Article 192(2) to take a legislative initiative pursuant to Rule 59 of Parliament's Rules of Procedure based on the Code of Good Administrative Behaviour;
11. Calls on all EU institutions and bodies to implement Regulation 1049/2001 in the spirit of recognising that access to documents held by the European institutions is a fundamental right pursuant to Article 42 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and with the sincere objective to take decisions ‘as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen’, as required by Article 1(2) of the Treaty on the European Union;
12. Reconfirms, once again, its position that data protection rules are primarily concerned with the protection of private and family life, in accordance with the case law on the relationship between Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe's Data Protection Convention, and emphasises that it is not the purpose of data protection to restrict the information available to citizens about public activities;
13. Reiterates its demand that the Commission should inform the complainant in complaint 713/98/IJH of the names of the delegates of the Confederation des brasseurs du marché commun who attended a meeting organised by the Commission on 11 October 1996 and of companies and persons in the 14 categories identified in the complainant’s original request for access to documents who made submissions to the Commission under file reference P/93/4490/Y;
14. Welcomes the Communication from the Commission on relations with the complainant in respect of infringements of Community law as an improvement in the administration of the infringement procedure; notes, nevertheless, that the Communication does not address, in substance, the questions of individual redress, nor of access to documents and reiterates, therefore, its call on the Commission to reconsider, when applying Regulation 1049/2001, its interpretation of the ‘purpose of the infringement procedure’;
15. Welcomes the contribution by the Ombudsman to the Convention on the Future of Europe, including his address and replies to the plenary of 24 and 25 June 2002, his evidence to working group II under the chairmanship of Commissioner Antonio Vitorino on 4 October 2002, his submission of a draft of new or amended Treaty provisions (CONV 221/02) on 26 July 2002, and his remarks to the Convention on 8 November 2002 commenting on the preliminary draft Constitutional Treaty.
16. Calls on the Commission to reconsider its position on the proposed amendments to Article 3(2) of the Ombudsman's Statute, notably, regarding Member States' and third parties' right to deny the Ombudsman and Parliament access to information and regarding the limits defended by the Commission in respect to the right and duty of officials and other servants to give truthful testimony to the Ombudsman in the course of his inquiries;
17. Considers that it would be appropriate to reinforce the necessary cooperation between the Committee responsible and the Ombudsman, with due regard for their respective powers, and undertakes to initiate a review, without delay and at the most appropriate level, of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure and the Ombudsman's Statute in order to be able to make any changes in these which may be needed by the end of the present legislature;
18. Instructs its President to forward this resolution and the report by the Committee on Petitions to the Commission, the Council, the European Ombudsman, the governments and parliaments of the Member States and to the ombudsmen or equivalent bodies in the Member States.
The retirement of the first European Ombudsman, Jacob Söderman, marks an important milestone in the developing relationship between the citizens of the European Union and its institutions. Your rapporteur would like to express most warmly the congratulations of the Committee to Mr Söderman for a remarkable job in both creating and expanding the role of the European Ombudsman.
In particular with his contributions to the work of the Convention on the Future of Europe and his establishment of close relations with the governments of the accession states, Mr Söderman has left an indelible mark on the future development of the Union. As a member of the Convention, your rapporteur would like to pay a special tribute to his evidence both in plenary and in working group II and his formal submission adopted by the Convention as an official working document.
Concerns expressed at the time of Mr Söderman's appointment that the office would be subject to political, national or regional pressures have proven to be completely unjustified and his tenure of the office has established an important tradition of complete impartiality that must be maintained.
It is worth perhaps reflecting where the European Union would be if the position of the Ombudsman had not been created. It is widely accepted that ignorance, and resulting suspicion and hostility to the Union, is one of the most serious problems facing us; a fact clearly reflected in the low turn out at European elections and an important consideration in the work of the Convention. The thousands of cases that have been considered by Ombudsman and the hundreds that he has been able to resolve with a "friendly solution" have each eliminated an individual area of complaint or concern for the citizens of the Union.
Study of the individual cases in this report (as in previous ones) shows the diverse range of topics that have been dealt with and the determination of the Ombudsman and his staff to pursue cases until a satisfactory resolution is achieved. Nevertheless, the fact that the highest proportion of complaints remains those against the Commission shows that both he and the Petitions Committee of the Parliament can not afford to drop their guard.
It is to be hoped that Members of the Parliament and the media who are so eager to make unfounded accusations and unsupported criticism of the institutions of the Union will also read the report, if only to realise how many opportunities for criticism have been removed. Any hope that such individuals might acknowledge this excellent record is of course so small as to be non-existent.
As part of the ongoing work to inform the public and national Government institutions both in and out of the EU on the role of the European Ombudsman Mr Söderman, or members of his staff, attended conferences and meetings on 78 days during the year and gave more than 40 press conferences and media interviews. The Ombudsman's website has continued to grow and in April 2001 an electronically submittable version of the complaint form was added in twelve new Treaty languages. The number of complaints made via the internet has risen from 1/6th in 1999 to almost ½ in 2002. Simultaneously, requests for information via the main E-mail account have gone up from 1260 in 2000 to 3717 in 2002. In October information on the European Ombudsman became available in the 12 languages of the applicant countries bringing the total to 24.
The detailed statistics published in the Annexe to the annual report confirm a continuing rise in the caseload and a continuing improvement in the speed of processing these cases through the office of the Ombudsman. Similarly the level of resolution of cases continues to rise, even with complaints against the Commission.
The issue of the Code of Good Administrative Behaviour continues to concern the Ombudsman. Notwithstanding the formal adoption of the code by Parliament, the Commission has still failed to adopt and apply the code. The Commission claimed that its own internal code in effect meant the same as the formal code and undertook to publish a review of the operation of the internal code for the first year. This was published on 20 November 2002.
Closely allied to this issue remains the misuse of data protection rules, where, in spite of the fact that repeated statements that these rules are primarily concerned with protection of private and family (endorsed by case law on the relationship between Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention and the Council of Europe's Data Protection Convention), official bodies continue to restrict access to information that should be available to citizens about public activities, using the smoke screen of Data Protection.
Where to from here?
The future role of the office of Ombudsman, and its work with and relationship to your Committee, is under review and any re-structuring and redefinition will, quite rightly, be the subject of reports to the Parliament by the Petitions Committee and recommendations by the incoming Ombudsman, Mr Diamandorous.
However, your rapporteur would like to stress the following:
1. That all of the institutions of the Union, especially the Commission, must adopt the code of Good Administrative Behaviour
2. That transparency and access to the decision making processes of the Union is a sine qua non if the enlarged Union is to function with the support and hopefully the approval of the five hundred million citizens that make up the Union after enlargement,
3. That the Ombudsman and the Petitions Committee in their respective fields of competence must have the capability to investigate and resolve complaints. There must be an authoritative body to look at and look for complaints and fulfil for the citizens something of the role of a 'juge d'instruction'
4. Finally, that the European Ombudsman and his national and regional opposite numbers, working with your Committee and the Parliament do everything to ensure that what emerges from the work of the Convention on the Future of Europe maximises the access, transparency and accountability of the European Union.