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Good work, but could be better… (the role of the European Ombudsman)

Article by Dick Leonard

March 24, 2009

It was badly needed – few people have more than the haziest idea of the scope of the Ombudsman’s mandate, or how to go about using the excellent service which he and his staff provide.

Diamandouros revealed that, of more than 3,000 complaints which he receives each year, three quarters are, in effect, sent to the wrong address. Most of these do, in fact refer to alleged breaches of European law, but not by the European institutions (including the Commission, Council, Parliament and Court of Justice) for which he is responsible. National governments and bodies are not included in his mandate, even when they are dealing with European laws.

Of the complaints which he is able to investigate, he finds, on average, that about half are justified, and of these, more than 75 per cent are settled to the satisfaction of the complainant.

The web-site, which is admirably clear and straightforward, attempts to guide people to the proper source for making complaints where the European Ombudsman is unable to act. In many cases this should be the national Ombudsmen in each of the 27 member states.

The website lists all their addresses, as well as those of other bodies who might be able to help. A clear definition of the Ombudsman’s role is given on the site, and in an accompanying free booklet, What can the European Ombudsman do for you? It is to “investigate complaints about maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the European Union (EU)”.

Sensing that this word is likely to be unfamiliar to most people, it is explained that it “means poor or failed administration. This occurs if an institution fails to act in accordance with the law, fails to respect the principles of good administration, or violates human rights”.

Examples given are “administrative irregularities, unfairness, discrimination, abuse of power, failure to reply, refusal of information and unnecessary delay.

As well as investigating individual complaints, the Ombudsman has the right, pioneered by his predecessor, Jacob Söderman, to issue ‘own initiative’ reports, something he often chooses to do when a large number of complaints are received of a similar nature. One of these was on the slowness of payment by the Commission on contracts which it makes with other organisations. The Ombudsman’s report advocated a series of reforms to speed matters up, which the Commission has accepted.434

I asked Mr Diamandouros if his work would be affected by the Lisbon Treaty if it came into effect. He replied that it should expand his role in a number of ways.

Firstly, that the pillars’ structure, dividing European Community matters from inter-governmentalism in Justice and Home Affairs, would be abolished, enabling him to investigate complaints in certain areas at present off-limits.

Secondly, the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights would be given legal effect, which, as it includes in its Article 41 the right to good administration “in a fair way”, could also mean that many more valid complaints would come to his door.

Unfortunately, both the British and Polish governments have opted out of this provision, potentially greatly to the disadvantage of their own citizens.

A close observer and friendly critic of the Ombudsman’s work is Tony Venables, founder and director of the Euro-Citizens’ Action Service (ECAS). He believes that the time has come, with the likely adoption of Lisbon and the arrival this year of a new Commission and a new Parliament, for a thorough re-examination of the means open to EU citizens to complain.

These include the Ombudsman, the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament, the role of individual MEPs and the possibilities of making direct complaints to the Commission, as well as taking action through the Courts.

Venables does not believe that the case has been made out for extending the European Ombudsman’s brief to include complaints against national governments, but thinks the performance levels of national ombudsmen are very variable, and wonders whether the European Ombudsman should be given a stronger co-ordinating role between them.

His most scathing criticism of the present system, however, is its failure to reach beyond educated elite, who nave ready access to the internet and the ability to put this to good use.

The most deprived citizens, particularly immigrants working in other member stages, mostly lack this ability, and for them Venables advocates the development of a series of European citizens’ advice bureaux, funded by the Commission, and available in all the main centres of population, capable of offering face-to-face advice in a variety of Community languages.

ECAS has opened a ‘hotline’ to collect views on these and a host of other suggestions for widening the circle of legitimate complaints. It hopes to publish a report of its own collating these views, in time for the European Parliament elections in June, and for consideration by the incoming Parliament and Commission.

Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union

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