The EU needs an impartial ombudsman, writes Ann Abraham
Members of the European Parliament have an impressive track record when it comes to choosing an ombudsman. Whoever emerges from the election process in July will find their predecessors, Jacob Söderman and Nikiforos Diamandouros, hard acts to follow. I worked with and have great admiration for both of them. So how can MEPs ensure that the next European Ombudsman maintains the standard that has been set and that the office retains the trust of European citizens?
Ombudsmen are impartial. They
don’t take sides, they make judgments – decisions that are legal, objective and fair. As a former Ombudsman, with impartiality ingrained, I offer no opinion on the respective merits of the individual candidates. But I do feel qualified to offer some expertise on good administration and good decision-making.
In this respect MEPs can usefully refer to their own European Code of Good Administrative Behaviour (article 9), on objectivity, which says: “When taking decisions, the official shall take into consideration the relevant factors and give each of them its proper weight in the decision, whilst excluding any irrelevant element from consideration.”
So what are the relevant factors here?
Most important are the rules of procedure of the European Parliament. They say that: ‘The Ombudsman shall be chosen from among persons who are European citizens, have full civil and political rights, offer every guarantee of independence and meet the conditions required for the highest judicial office in their country or have the acknowledged competence and experience to undertake the duties of Ombudsman.”
The rules of procedure also say that: ‘The Ombudsman shall perform his duties with complete independence, in the general interest of the Communities and of the citizens of the Union”, and require the Ombudsman to perform his duties with “complete independence and impartiality”.
Do those rules preclude candidates who are active politicians? Possibly not, at least in theory, but in practice it seems to me that a candidate who is not currently associated with any political party will be much better placed to secure the confidence of European citizens in their “complete independence and impartiality”. Perceptions are as important as reality in this context. Independence and impartiality cannot simply be asserted. They must be visible and demonstrable.
So a factor to be given proper weight in choosing the next European Ombudsman has to be the perceived independence and impartiality of the candidate. At a time when there is talk of a crisis of legitimacy in the EU institutions, MEPs will want to consider whether choosing an active politician as the next European Ombudsman is likely to add to or detract from that legitimacy.
Ann Abraham was the UK’s parliamentary ombudsman from 2002 to 2011.
The EU should follow the rules in member states, writes Mats Melin
There has been a great deal of discussion as to whether MEPs should stand for the office of European Ombudsman. In my opinion, they should not.
Of course, the ombudsman’s authority is to a large extent based upon the fact that he or she is elected by the representatives of the people, not least in relation to other state organs and public institutions. But this does not imply that one of these representatives should be the ombudsman.
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It is true that there is no educational or professional background common to ombudsmen at the national level. Many are lawyers, some are political scientists and some are former state officials. It is equally true that what really matters is that the Parliament strives to search for an honest man or woman of sound judgement and unquestionable integrity.
However, when conducting the search for a national ombudsman, national MPs need to leave party politics behind. In order to have the ombudsman of their choice trusted by citizens and institutions, it is preferable that the candidate is not closely associated with any of the political spheres in the country. If he or she is affiliated to the parliamentary majority, there may be those who suspect that he or she defends, or at least hesitates to criticise, government. If the ombudsman is linked to the opposition, there may be those who claim that he or she criticises the government without just cause.
In order to help MPs put their political preferences aside, or force them to
agree on a candidate by consensus, most national legal orders require a
qualified majority for the election of
In other words, it is essential that MPs are able to put the wider interests of the state and its citizens before the interests of a certain political party or grouping. Furthermore, the ombudsman needs to be independent from other state organs. An election by a large parliamentary majority will provide that person with such independence – and so will, of course, his or her personal integrity.
The ombudsman should not, when choosing what matters to investigate, be governed by anything else than the complaints filed by citizens and, with regard to own-initiative investigations, by his or her own sound judgment. State organs should refrain from ordering – or even asking – the ombudsman to investigate specific matters. Such requests may risk compromising the office of the ombudsman in the eyes of the public.
These are, I think, generally recognised aspects of the work of ombudsmen at the national level. The European Ombudsman institution was construed along the lines of national ombudsman institutions, and the office-holders, when elected, have so far been experienced and respected national ombudsmen.
There is, as I see it, good reason to apply the principles designed to secure an independent and effective ombudsman at the national level within the somewhat different constitutional structure that is the EU. In addition, to do so will also facilitate the important role of the European Ombudsman to administer the European network of national and regional ombudsmen.
Mats Melin is a former chief parliamentary ombudsman of Sweden, and president of the Supreme Administrative Court.
Impartiality is about courage and passion, writes Dagmar Roth-Behrendt
2013 is the European Year of Citizens. Yet, according to reliable recent surveys, the popularity of the EU fell from 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013. There are many reasons for that – first and foremost the bitter financial crisis. But it is also true that Europeans perceive our institutions as remote and indifferent to their concerns. Something has to be done about this. The ombudsman has a key role to play in restoring trust, building bridges, contributing through his or her actions to making the European administration transparent, open and efficient – but, above all, understandable and readily comprehensible to citizens.
In 2012, the main types of alleged maladministration in the EU
institutions and bodies investigated by the ombudsman concerned lawfulness in the application of substantive or procedural rules, requests for information, fairness and reasonable time limits for taking decisions. It is obvious, therefore, that investigating cases of maladministration calls for sound legal skills. But the ombudsman’s activity is also and above all about fairness. Good governance goes beyond the mere implementation of the law. It aspires to make effective principles such as those included in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The ombudsman is not a court of law: after finalising the inquiry, all the 0mbudsman has in order to move the institution involved in the right direction is the power of persuasion, which is why the French name for the ombudsman is médiateur. A deep knowledge of the administration of the EU institutions is essential in order to perform this part of the job, which is all about convincing with arguments and being a trusted, reliable partner.
During the last few weeks, some have questioned whether it is right for a member of the European Parliament to be a candidate for the post of ombudsman on the ground that MEPs are not impartial. Of course, the ombudsman must be impartial, as indeed all the other office-holders of the Union– such as judges, members of the Court of Auditors or commissioners – must be. But let’s see what impartiality means. Impartiality is about treating similar cases in the same way, irrespective of who is involved. Impartiality is about being able to resist pressure, political or economic or whatever. Impartiality is also about courage and passion. And it seems to me that a political background is not an impediment but on the contrary an asset when it comes to defending equal rights and fairness.
This is why we need an ombudsman who – besides having legal expertise – is a person who is politically aware and knowledgeable about and sensitive to the people’s concerns and able to raise the reputation of the EU in the eyes of citizens.
Dagmar Roth-Behrendt is a German centre-left MEP.
Experience as an MEP would help in the role of ombudsman, writes Ria Oomen-Ruijten
Every candidate for the post of ombudsman has a specific identity
and a specific background, whether professional history, educational record or political preference, that may influence his or her worldview. This will, however, not prevent that person from thinking and acting in an independent way and I strongly believe that any ombudsman has to demonstrate his or her independence through the work undertaken and the specific decisions that he or she makes.
I think the first ever European Ombudsman proved that a career in politics does not negatively influence one’s functioning as a European Ombudsman. I would like to believe that when a former minister, member of parliament or governor fulfils the conditions of independence and functions in such a way as to make him eligible for election and re-election to the European Parliament, surely members of the European Parliament would also be suitable candidates.
Moreover, if we follow the reasoning that, based on the conditions of independence laid down in the EU’s treaties, individuals with a certain political affiliation should not be allowed to stand as a candidate for the post of European Ombudsman, I look forward to seeing how this line of reasoning is implemented for the appointment of new European commissioners, for whom similar conditions of independence are foreseen in the treaties.
A significant advantage for members of the European Parliament is that, next to having extensive direct contact with European citizens, they also know the European institutions from the inside and are accustomed to working in a European framework. The European administration is different from national administrations and the experience and institutional insight gathered by MEPs during their mandate is an absolute asset.
I hold the firm belief that people’s representatives, regardless of political orientation, make excellent candidates for the position of European Ombudsman.
A hard working, committed member of the Parliament deals on a daily basis with issues very similar to those that are being dealt with by the European Ombudsman. My career has always been guided by the idea that a member of the Parliament, besides being a lawmaker, must be an accessible contact point for citizens with questions, problems or complaints. You are not elected to a parliament for your political party or for your country, but for the citizens you represent, regardless of origin, nationality or political affiliation. It is therefore not surprising that an oath of independence is an excellent custom in many parliaments.
Ria Oomen-Ruijten is a Dutch centre-right MEP.