Three Questions for European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly on the Importance of Transparency
Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, spoke at a recent GMF event in Washington, DC on her role and on the importance of transparency during a time of rising nationalism and populism
To begin, can you explain your mission as European ombudsman to a U.S. audience?
An ombudsman is somebody who acts as a watchdog for the administration on behalf of the citizens. There are ombudsmen in all of the member’ states of the European Union, apart from Germany and Italy. Basically, the ombudsman is where people who feel they have been treated unfairly by the administration can go to launch complaints. So, as European ombudsman, people who feel that they have been dealt with poorly, or inefficiently, or unfairly by any of the European institutions, such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank, or the European Medicines Agency, can contact me. I will investigate and, if I think it appropriate, I will make recommendations for address.
We face a challenging environment, a time of rising populist politics. No less than 130 million Europeans live under some kind of populist leader, and you yourself have talked about strongman politics. How do you feel as an ombudsman about this phenomenon? How important is trust in institutions and how do you contribute to this?
I think trust is vital. I think above all people need to feel like they’re being treated fairly and that they’re included in decision-making. A lot of the work that I’ve done in the EU has to do with the transparency of decision-making, allowing people to see what the EU institutions are doing – their lawmaking that impacts every citizen, and even those outside the EU.
So, for example, I’m looking at the transparency of the Council. This is where all the ministers, depending on what sector they’re dealing with (economics, health, agriculture, whatever), come together in the EU to agree on laws. Now, a lot of their negotiations are quite secretive, quite opaque, and I have made recommendations in a special report to the European Parliament, based on a special investigation that I carried out, for greater transparency, so that people can see, at an appropriate time, what exactly the decision-making is. That way, if they want to get involved, if they want to have their views taken into consideration, they can do so.
The biggest story for the EU right now is unquestionably Brexit. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about how this has impacted your work and how this has come across.
Even though the United Kingdom hasn’t officially left the EU yet, Brexit has caused a lot of problems and upsets for many, many citizens – both EU citizens living in the United Kingdom and its citizens living in the EU, because it’s very difficult for them to know what they should do, what decisions to make in relation to the future welfare of themselves, their families, and their businesses. I’ve been doing a lot of work with my colleagues in the network of European ombudsmen to raise our general awareness of what’s going on. We need to be in a position to help once the United Kingdom does leave the EU so that we can be a resource for the citizens if they have particular problems in sorting out the inevitable difficulties and challenges that are going to emerge.
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