A Light in the Dark

Emily O'Reilly

The European Ombudsman says that too much is agreed behind closed doors and that the public has a right to know how EU policy is decided.

Who decided the fisherman’s quota or the farmer’s choice of pesticide? “Not a lot of people know that” (as Michael Caine claims he never said) and we certainly don’t. Nor apparently does Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman. We’ve previously referred to recommendations on transparency made by O’Reilly (see Expensives-2 and Revealing Appointment-2). Her website shows that she is following other enquiries on this issue: https://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/press-release/en/109910.

One concerns how the EU handles Eurogroup documents and makes them public, or not. Documents from three technical committees that show what they discuss are not made public, “making it extremely difficult for citizens to monitor Eurozone governance.”

“The financial crisis showed the impact of Eurogroup decisions on the lives of millions. This will increase with the introduction of a Eurozone budget. I want to give citizens a visible thread to follow when EU decisions are made by their national Ministers, and on what basis,” reported the Ombudsman in the press release.

A second topic concerns fishing quotas, discussions of which “are completely behind closed doors and yet make important decisions for the sustainability of fishing stocks and of jobs in fishing communities around Europe”.

Following a third enquiry, into the risks of pesticides to bees, Ms O’Reilly issued a finding of maladministration.

Concerns about transparency in EU administration accounted for nearly a quarter of the Ombudsman’s cases in 2018. Complaints from citizens rose by 17% over the previous year.

The European Parliament overwhelmingly supported the Ombudsman’s proposals on improving transparency in the European Council. (Links to the various documents are given in the website above.)

Special reportIn her Special Report on the transparency of the Council’s legislative discussions Ms O’Reilly argued that, “In order for European citizens properly to exercise their democratic right to participate in the EU’s decision-making process, and hold those involved to account, legislative deliberations must be sufficiently transparent.”

We too argued, light-heartedly, in support of this EU value in European Values and, more critically, in Freedom from Information. We questioned a range of EU goals and values in Only Believe.

The Ombudsman found that the Council’s current practices constitute maladministration. In particular, she criticised the Council’s failure to record systematically the identity of Member States taking positions in preparatory bodies, and the widespread practice of restricting access to legislative documents while the decision-making process is ongoing…The Council did not reply to her recommendations and suggestions within the legally-prescribed timeline of three months.” Unfortunately telling them they engage in maladministration seems to have zero effect as the Ombudsman’s recommendations carry no legal weight and EU leaders and bureaucrats seem not to care about their credibility gap between theory and practice (see our Themes-11).

At present, legislative documents of the Council are not, to any significant extent, being made directly and proactively accessible to the public while the legislative process is ongoing. …because of shortcomings in how the Council registers these documents, the public is often not in a position to know, in real time, what documents actually exist.”

Article 15 of the Lisbon Treaty has this: “Each institution, body, office or agency shall ensure that its proceedings are transparent”. Perhaps not telling the public what documents are not available for them (i.e. us) to read saves the bother of redacting them.

Ombudsman“…the more fundamental issue is the level of commitment of the Council to ensuring transparency and thus accountability in its role as an EU legislator.”

The Ombudsman concluded that, “the Council should improve the transparency of its legislative process.” We’re not expecting to see any change.

(see also Law-making in Secret and Secrets & Obfuscations)


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