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Raising the stakes

European ombudsman Emily O’Reilly speaks to Amanda Stringfellow about her mission to make the EU more transparent.

Investigating maladministration within the bureaucratic processes of the EU institutions isn’t seen as the most glamorous job in Brussels. Since her appointment in October 2013, however, Emily O’Reilly has been breathing life into the 20-year-old European ombudsman office, with a ceaseless passion for accountability.

O’Reilly made the transition from award-winning journalist to ombudsman when she began her 10-year stint as Ireland’s national ombudsman in 2003. There, she turned her investigative skills to probing the maladministration of political institutions from the inside. “My background in journalism means I’m big on talking and conversing, and I’m big on getting the facts out there,” she says.

The European ombudsman, a position set up by the European Parliament, investigates complaints of injustice within the institutions and bodies of the EU. For O’Reilly, the aim is to open up a direct line of accountability from citizens to the institutions. “It’s all about making sure people can see who is influencing EU policy, and how,” she says.

O’Reilly says her primary objective has been to make the ombudsman’s office more useful. “I certainly don’t take a minimalist view of what this office can or should achieve—it’s been given a very important role by the treaties to be the watchdog of Europe,” she says. Given that the ombudsman has no legal power to enforce its recommendations, O’Reilly says she is proud that she has raised the proportion of recommendations accepted by the institutions, from 82 per cent in 2013 to 90 per cent by 2016.

One method O’Reilly has made full use of is the so-called strategic own-initiative inquiry. The office can launch these with no formal complaint of wrongdoing, but they take up a considerable amount of staff time. O’Reilly has instigated 15 strategic own-initiatives since 2013—including one into the transparency of the TTIP trade partnership that is under negotiation between the EU and the United States, and another into revolving-door appointments between the EU and industry.

It comes as no surprise that her use of own-initiatives has caused friction with the institutions she investigates—a conflict that has become increasingly apparent in an on-going investigation into the transparency of trilogues. Trilogue, which describes deal-making negotiations between the European Commission, the Parliament and the European Council, is “a made-up Brussels word, because it’s not in any treaty”, says O’Reilly. “We picked up on concerns that these were behind closed doors and nobody knew what was going on.”

In opinions published in December, all three institutions said they believed the ombudsman had overstepped her remit with this latest probe: arguing the task is to examine incorrect application of EU processes, rather than evaluate the processes themselves.

But O’Reilly laughs off any suggestion that this represents a serious warning. “If you skip down to the final paragraph you will see they all agreed to cooperate.” O’Reilly has launched a public consultation on the issue with a deadline of 31 March, and says she hopes that the final recommendations will be her “big piece” for 2016. The fact that her investigations are increasingly attracting the attention of the Brussels news cycle can only further her aim to make the office more visible, she says. “This will lead to more and bigger complaints.”

Alongside high-profile investigations, recommendations made last year include suggesting that the Commission do more to ensure that its scientific advice is seen as independent and objective; and that the Research Executive Agency increase its oversight of universities that award Marie Curie research fellowships—following a complaint from an unnamed researcher whose fellowship under Framework 7 was rescinded, on the basis that a business internship rendered his application unethical.

Going forward, O’Reilly has plans to increase her impact using the network of national ombudsmen that she chairs, to conduct simultaneous investigations at both EU and member-state level. In the coming year, this could include parallel investigations on the lobbying of public officials across Europe, she says. This is an issue of public interest following the Volkswagen emissions scandal, she says, after “people started exploring how the regulation came about that allowed the emission scandal to emerge”.

In post until 2019, O’Reilly says that rising scepticism about the EU’s purpose and its processes will only fuel her desire for clarity. “It’s about making sure there is transparency around all areas of EU policy…even though it appears abstract and difficult,” she says.

CV: Emily O’Reilly

  • 2013-present European ombudsman
  • 2003-13 Ireland’s ombudsman and information commissioner
  • 1999 Editor of Magill
  • 1994-1998 Political editor, The Sunday Business Post
  • 1989-1994 Political correspondent, Irish Press
  • 1988-1989 Nieman Journalism Fellowship, Harvard University, US
  • 1982-1986 Correspondent, Sunday Tribune, Dublin

This article also appeared in Research Europe