Wednesday, May 05, 2010

EU: European Commission failed to heed Ombudsman's advice to release documents requested by Friends of the Earth

Source: European Parliament - Presenting his first report critical of an EU Institution for not cooperating, European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros (photo) recently told MEPs on the Petitions Committee how the European Commission failed to heed his advice to release documents requested by an NGO. MEPs must now assess the case and decide how to respond to the Ombudsman's request for a formal demand that the Commission desist from such behaviour and commit to sincere cooperation with his office

In March 2007, environmental lobby group "Friends of the Earth Europe" asked for correspondence between the Commission and car manufacturers regarding carbon dioxide emissions to be made public, the Ombudsman reported.

The Ombudsman ruled in Friends of the Earth's favour in October 2008 and the Commission released the documents - aside from three letters concerning car manufacturer Porsche addressed to former Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen. Following further Ombudsman requests, the Commission asked for a total of six extensions to the three month deadline.

The Commission then stated the need to contact Porsche - to give them an opportunity to protest the decision, in line with legal procedures - but as of December 2009, it had failed to do so.

On 4 May Mr Diamandouros delivered his special report to the Petitions Committee. In his view the case "raises an important point of principle" and so he "seeks the Parliament's assistance". He asked Parliament to adopt a resolution calling on the Commission to acknowledge "the excessive delays" and to commit itself to "respect the duty of sincere cooperation with the Ombudsman in the future".

A special report to Parliament is the severest measure the Ombudsman has at his disposal.

During the 15 years since its inception, the office of EU Ombudsman has investigated 33,000 cases. Only 17 have resulted in a special report. This is the first time the ombudsman has officially criticised an EU institution for lack of sincere cooperation.

"Extensions for 15 months and finally only giving in under duress, I very clearly have to object," he said. "Transparency is a very important policy of the EU. The Commission has taken unpardonably long."

"It is an extraordinarily rare occasion. But it is not enough to say, it happens very rarely, therefore it is fine. The Ombudsman stresses the need to think qualitatively, not quantitatively. The civil service needs to be ever mindful of the good image of the Union. This is detrimental to the public image of and erodes the citizen's trust in the EU," he added.

German MEP Gerald Häfner noted letters from manufacturers from other countries were released - but not Porsche's: "Porsche has some of the highest emission rates in the world. It is also one of the most profitable manufacturers. And then we have a commissioner from the same country. As I see it, because of nationality, not everyone was treated the same way. This is bad administration. How do we regain the citizen's trust?" he said.

Danish Green Margrete Auken told us "it is clear that the Commission is protecting a big company. But we have to keep to the treaty. If we do not take action - anything could happen."

The head of the Commission's unit for Transparency and Relations with Stakeholders Gerard Legris told us, "in all cases regarding requests for access, we work to make all documents at least partially public. But some interests are delicate".

The Petitions Committee as a whole must now consider how to react. To begin the process, it appointed Greek Socialist Chrysoula Paliadeli, (Vice-Chair of the Petitions Committee) as rapporteur on the special report. She will formulate proposals for the committee to follow-up.

See also Sydney Irresistible and Mike Hitchen Unleashed
Putting principles before profits