|A citizen of any EU country is also a 'citizen of the European Union'. This EU citizenship does not replace national citizenship; it is additional to it - a principle laid down in the Treaty of Amsterdam and also given an important place in the draft European Constitution drawn up by the Convention on the Future of Europe. The concept of Union citizenship was developed in successive treaties. The right to vote in municipal and European elections and the Charter of Fundamental Rights are key aspects of it. Parliament's Committee on Petitions and the Ombudsman also act as channels for listening to and serving the interests of citizens who believe their rights have been infringed.
It was essentially the 1992 Maastricht Treaty which introduced the concept of 'European citizenship'. Certain rights associated with being a national of a country of the Community already existed, such as the right to move and reside freely in the territory of the Member States or the right to hold public service jobs in another country provided this does not involve exercising public authority. However, under the heading 'Citizenship of the Union' - placed right at the beginning of the text - the Maastricht Treaty went much further, recognising the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in European and municipal elections and the right to diplomatic and consular protection in non-EU countries, under which any EU citizen is entitled to the same protection from representatives of other Member States as he would get from diplomats of his own country. The Maastricht Treaty also introduced the right to submit petitions, and set up the office of European Ombudsman.
The draft Constitution incorporates all these rights and further strengthens them, above all by incorporating the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the Treaty - including the right to good administration - and by stating, in Article 1, that the Union 'reflects the will of the citizens and States of Europe to build a common future'. This principle of dual legitimacy conferred by citizens and States, on which the Union is based, reflects the way the EU has evolved. The right to vote and the Charter are covered by other notes in this series. This note focuses on the right of petition and the role of the Ombudsman.
Petitions - a way to get action taken
Members of Parliament are there to listen to the concerns of their voters, so after the right to submit petitions was introduced the European Parliament set up a Committee on Petitions, whose workload has steadily grown. All records have been broken in this parliamentary term, with nearly 6,000 petitions received. Petitions are addressed to the Parliament either by individuals or by organisations to complain about the failure - often by the Member States - to apply Community law correctly. Petitioners may also draw attention to shortcomings they believe exist in European legislation. The right to lodge a petition or to complain to the Ombudsman is open to all individuals or organisations, living or registered in a Member State, irrespective of nationality.
Of these approximately 6,000 petitions received in the past five years, a significant proportion were inadmissible, either because they did not meet the criteria or because they fell within the Ombudsman's remit. However, many have been examined by MEPs, with practical benefits for the public. In some 50 or so cases, after Parliament passed on the complaints to the European Commission, the latter took EU Member States to the Court of Justice for failing to respect the rules. More often, problems have been resolved to everyone's benefit after representations were made to the national authorities. Occasionally, an individual petition has even led to the introduction of new legislation applicable to all EU citizens.
The problems the public raises in petitions chiefly relate to the environment, free movement of persons and goods, social security, recognition of qualifications and taxation. While the majority of petitions are individual ones, some bear an impressive number of signatures. A petition on the protection and conservation of great apes was backed up by 2 million signatures!
Some practical cases
Petitions must be on subjects to do with the EU and be of direct concern to the person submitting the petition. Take for example a British citizen who owns a country home in Tuscany. He may wish to have the use of a car there during his holidays. However, the Italian authorities only allow permanent residents to register cars. The complaint is examined by the European Parliament, which urges the Commission to take action as the situation contravenes the principles of non-discrimination and freedom to provide services. The Commission institutes infringement proceedings against Italy, which ultimately issues a circular allowing all nationals of EU countries who have regular links with its territory to register a car locally.
An Irish citizen sends a petition to Parliament. A road development project, jointly financed by the EU, is going ahead even though no environmental impact assessment has been carried out. Parliament's Committee on Petitions and the European Commission intervene. In the end, the Irish Minister for the Environment commissions an assessment and then has the project adjusted in two ways, to reduce noise and improve pedestrian safety.
A German national is employed by a French transnational company to work in Germany. He pays his social security contributions in Germany. The French company goes into administration. Neither the German nor the French authorities are willing to pay him the compensation he is entitled to. Parliament informs the Commission, which requests the opinion of the Court of Justice, because there are as yet no European rules governing such situations. The petitioner ultimately receives the compensation due to him, which is paid by the French authorities. And, above all, the European Union subsequently tightens up its legislation to give better protection to workers whose employers have gone bankrupt, particularly in the case of transnational companies. The European Parliament played a key role in drawing up this directive (see also our note on Protection of workers).
Sometimes petitions raise problems important enough to lead Parliament to draw up an own-initiative report on the issue. For example, thousands of women signed petitions calling for a ban on silicone breast implants because of the serious health problems they had suffered. In a report adopted in 2001 on the basis of a scientific study, Parliament called on the European Commission to tackle this problem. The Commission asked the Member States to make sure that women receive better information about the risks and that patients who have had implants receive proper monitoring and check-ups.
Ombudsman fights maladministration
If a member of the public or a company thinks that a Community institution is guilty of 'maladministration', a complaint can be made to the European Ombudsman. 'Maladministration' means when an institution or body fails to abide by a rule or principle by which it is bound. The problem may amount to discrimination, a lack of or refusal to provide information, unreasonable delays or abuses of power. The Ombudsman will try to find solutions to the complainant's problem, contact the institutions concerned and inform the European Parliament.
The European Ombudsman is elected by Parliament and has his office at its premises in Strasbourg but he acts with complete independence and impartiality. Nikiforos Diamandouros was appointed to the post of Ombudsman in April 2003, replacing the very first European Ombudsman, Jacob Söderman. Since this institution was established by the Maastricht Treaty, it has handled more than 14,000 complaints. The Ombudsman's recommendations have most frequently been targeted at the European Commission and have sometimes led to substantial compensation being paid out.
The Ombudsman, then, is an administrative watchdog, and the action taken by his office in thousands of cases has helped improve the way the EU institutions operate and ensured that greater account is taken of the public's interests. The European Parliament has repeatedly stressed the need to draw up a code of good administrative conduct which would be identical, as far as possible, for all the EU institutions. Most of the institutions have now adopted their own such codes.