May 15, 2014
Emily O’Reilly, recently installed EU Ombudsman, encouraged journalists who has been refused access to official EU Documents to contact her office: “my Office can inspect any documents, no matter how confidential, held by any EU institution or agency. As part of an inquiry, I can also call on any EU official to testify to ascertain the facts of a case.” The EU Ombudsman has had substantial successes in obtaining EU official documents as well as having been rebuffed, notably by the ECB, although this inquiry is still pending a final European Court Judgement.
In a keynote speech given to the fourth Data Harvest conference organised by Journalismfund.eu the Ombudsman explained how the main EU institutions have been obliged to adopt Open Access practices in order to bring citizens inside the governance tent. Transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption are all major drivers for more open debate and data.
Major priorities currently or recently pursued by the Ombudsman include:
- Migrant files – shame that private individuals rather than any of the EU institutions have collected data on how many people have died trying to reach the EU.
- Access to clinical trials data: European Medicines Agency was sued by US pharma coalition but after intervention of the Ombudsman US pharma has dropped their suit. EP has voted to ensure that all new clinical trials data is published, but this will only apply to new drugs and is not retrospective.
- TTIP – the US / EU trade negotiations is currently being challenged by the Ombudsman for having circulated certain documents to certain trade associations but have so far refused to acknowledge that these are ‘in the public interest’.
- ‘Revolving doors’: EU officials are often given ‘leave of absence’ but the institutions appear not to be monitoring the impact this has or whether there are any breaches of EU confidentiality.
- Protection of EU ‘whistle-blowers’: another area where effective implementation of listening to complaints can benefit integrity across public administrations; instead of the current practice of often only reacting after a scandal breaks.
A major difference between some member states and the EU is that neither the Ombudsman nor the European Court of Justice can compel an EU institution to release a document. Whereas in Ireland and some other countries the national Ombudsman and the courts can order the release of a contested document as being in the public interest, Ms O’Reilly clearly finds it frustrating that neither she nor the ECJ can order the release of EU documents if an EU institution or agency adamantly refuses to do so.
After only a few months in the position, this has led Emily O’Reilly to reflect that changing the culture of the EU is a long-term challenge or or as she put it “EU culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Clearly, there is an opportunity for newly elected MEPs to revise EU regulations in the 2014-19 term of office.
In answer to questions and comments, the Ombudsman suggested that the digital and Open Data revolution was leading politicians and administrations rather than vice-versa. Thus she anticipated more rather than fewer demands for access to EU documents in future and encouraged journalists to contact her office with examples of refusals or obfuscation of FOI requests.Julian Oliver