She is the Irish Ombudsman, a former journalist and broadcaster. She is the mother of five children and the first woman in the history of the European Ombudsman to be appointed to the role. Even more impressive is that she is not affiliated to any political party: Mrs. O' Reilly is not a politician. Nevertheless she saw off the competition - five candidates, three of them MEPS, in yesterday's parliamentary plenary vote in Strasbourg. The final was a play-off between two formidable women, with the Irish Ombudsman confronting Ms. Ria Oomen-Ruijten, a Dutch MEP of the European People's Party. However the members of the European Parliament didn't support their colleague and, in their third secret ballot, ensured victory to Mrs. O' Reilly with 359 votes, well over the 316 required for a majority.
In the run-up to the vote, the "MEP or not MEP" issue was a matter of controversy: can a politician guarantee the impartiality required for the post as the European Ombudsman? The European Ombudsman is one of the smallest European Institutions and acts as a watchdog over EU citizens' rights. It was established in 1995 and investigates cases of maladministration in the EU Institutions and bodies, including refusal to provide information or documents, lack of transparency, fairness and proportionality of treatment.
"It means especially, concretely, that when you have a problem with the EU administration and Institutions you can turn to the European Ombudsman. This is where we really protect the rights of the citizens" explains Ms. Gundi Gadesmann, Media and External Relations Officer in the Communication Department of the European Ombudsman.
Private citizens, companies, NGOs: they can all can present a public complaint to the European Ombudsman, when they are unhappy with the European administration because they feel a procedure is illegal or unfair, whether the procedure concerns legal matters or not. In 2012, for example, a Belgian NGO who was tasked with an EU project in the Congo had agreed on a simple cost reporting method with the European Commission, due to some difficulties in obtaining proper invoices from local partners. Subsequently, however, the Commission demanded a reimbursement of 150.000€, arguing that certain costs were not sufficiently documented by the NGO. This case demonstrates the principle of fair treatment: "Is it proportionate to ask an NGO to pay back hundred of thousands of Euro or is it maybe too much just because they did not fulfil this one little point in the contract?" Ms. Gadesmann continues, "Of course our decisions are not legally binding, we have no sanctions to force the institutions to follow our recommendations, suggestions or friendly solution proposals. But that's indeed our specialty: to actually find friendly solutions or to give recommendations. You can call it "soft law". We see ourselves as an alternative to the Court. We rely on our powers of persuasion". For the case in question, the Ombudsman proposed a friendly solution and a compromise was reached: the Commission refunded more than 100.000 € to the NGO.
Indeed, sometimes the conciliatory approach can be more successful than stronger methods. So, if you encounter any problems with an EU institution, turning to the European Ombudsman is worth a try, before you think about going to court. "Sometimes they say 'ok, but you cannot enforce your decisions'. We can't. - Ms. Gadesmann points out. "But, on the other hand, there is public pressure if we criticise an institution. And we think that is important to have an alternative to the court because if you go to court, you need a lawyer, it costs you some money. If you want a binding judgement of course, it is much more advisable to go to the court. But if it's not really about clear-cut judgements you are looking for, then the Ombudsman can give you a better service. We have a complaints rate of 80%, meaning that 80% of our recommendations and friendly solution proposals are followed by the Institutions, which is a very high rate." If it doesn't work out, you can still consider going to Court. Anyway the Court always has the last word and if the Ombudsman receives a complaint and there are similar cases going on to the Court of Justice, the Ombudsman would immediately stop working on it.
The European Ombudsman deals with maladministration and the protection of EU citizens' rights at European level ONLY, meaning that it doesn't deal with EU law implemented at the national level (like passengers' rights) or national and regional matters, such as unemployment payments and social security. National Ombudsmen deal with these cases of national maladministration.
The first country to introduce a watchdog institution was Sweden, two hundred years ago: the word "Ombudsman" in fact, is a Swedish word and it essentially means "representative", someone who is authorised to act for someone else. It is a Scandinavian notion par excellence. The concept of transparency and accountability that the Ombudsman represents was then introduced in the European Union with the Maastricht Treaty. Moreover the right to complain to the European Ombudsman is an enforceable right, included in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in Art. 43: "It was one of the strongest statements they wanted to give through the Charter." Ms. Gadesmann explained, "It's not only the right to complain. It is also the right to get access to documents and the right to good administration." Nowadays all European countries, with the exceptions of Italy and Germany, have a national Ombudsman and Turkey has also just introduced its first Ombudsman's office. In Italy, there is a network of regional Ombudsmen that is also member of the European network of Ombudsmen. In Germany, there is no Ombudsman as such, instead, they use a robust system of Petition Committees which works very well and is also part of the European network.
There is something else that the European Ombudsman doesn't do. "We cannot investigate MEPs or Commissioners," the Ombudsman's media officer explains, "this is not in our mandate. That is really the political level. We can investigate the European administration and the administration only." If you ask her if it's more difficult to deal with the Parliament, considering that the new Ombudsman is elected by it, she replies, "With the Parliament we have a special relationship, it is true it's different from what we have at the Commission. But this doesn't prevent us, like in the past, from investigating cases in the Parliament administration. We deal with them the exact way as we deal with the other institutions."
Sure enough, the relationship between the European Parliament and the European Ombudsman is very strong. The European Ombudsman indeed is elected by the Parliament, for the duration of the term of the Parliament. Mrs. O' Reilly will take up her new post in October, when the current Ombudsman, Mr. Nikiforos Diamandouros' appointment will come to an end, due to his stepping down from the role in March. His departure before the end of the current Parliament means Mrs. O’Reilly will have to be re-elected by the new Parliament next year, after the May 2014 European elections. "Every Parliament elects its own Ombudsman," Ms. Gadesmann says.
How likely is it that the newly elected Ombudsman will be confirmed by Parliament next year? Ms. Gadesmann replies, "It's perfectly possible but you cannot really know. It's a totally open question."
Stefania Lopedote is a journalist and a communications trainee at the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS)