Entretien avec Jacob Söderman : Towards a more open, social and human administration in Europe

Finlandais d'origine et juriste de formation, Jacob Söderman est devenu en 1995 le premier médiateur européen nommé à Strasbourg par le Parlement européen. Sa mission consiste à recevoir les plaintes — en constante augmentation depuis trois ans — et à résoudre les conflits qui s’y rapportent entre les citoyens et les différentes institutions et organes européens. Victime de son propre succès, le médiateur a eu à cœur de réduire au maximum les délais pour les plaintes relevant de sa compétence tout en identifiant l'instance appropriée pour celles concernant les États membres. Parmi les réformes qu'il juge le plus nécessaires figurent la transparence, notamment certaines réunions du Conseil et de la Commission qu'il voudrait rendre publiques, et le libre accès aux documents officiels.

Groupe des BELLES FEUILLES : Since you took office in September 1995, the number of complaints has increased tremendously as well as the number of settlements. But only a limited category of citizens, namely the ones who are already employed orthe ones who want to work for the European institutions,seems to have benefited from your intervention. What about the others ? Are they insufficiently informed ?

Jacob Söderman : I do not think that those who work for the Union or those who are looking for a job in the EU are the only ones to have benefited from the European Ombudsman’s office. First of all, we have very few staff complaints (only 28 admissible cases), because you cannot complain to the European Ombudsman without first using all the existing remedies in the institution which you are working in. After the last decision in that procedure there is normally only two months to initiate a case before the Court of First Instance.  Therefore, we have in fact rather few staff complaints, which is good, because the European Ombudsman’s office should be for the European citizens at large, not only for a limited group. It is true that we have had a larger number of complaints (about 80 admissible cases) from people who have been involved in the recruitment procedure. These people are young Europeans who want to work for the Union and usually this is their first contact with the Union and its administration. I think it is very important that they are fairly treated and that they can complain if they feel that they have been maltreated or poorly informed. On the other hand, you must remember that my remit is to supervise and undo maladministration in the activities of the Community institutions and bodies and not to deal with complaints about the activities of national authorities or with general human rights issues ; therefore it is usually people who have or have had a case pending in the Community administration who have a reason to complain. Our intention has been to see that all citizens who really might have a reason to complain should know about this right. We have taken a lot of action in this field, which is shown by the fact that there has been a rise in the number of complaints, but I am afraid that there is still a lot to be done.

Grievances at the National Level

GBF : Why are you still receiving so many complaints (70 to 80% of the total) that are not in your domain of competence ? Which lessons should be drawn at a European level from the dissatisfaction that citizens of the European Union express towards the application of Community law in the Member States, especially when it comes to exercising their right of freedom of movement ?

JS : All Ombudsmen’s offices receive complaints outsidetheir mandate. Our complaints of this type have stayed pretty high, because our remit is only the European level and not the Member State level. It is important to note that we try to refer all complainants to a competent body for their complaint. So far we have managed to give accurate advice to over 70% of the complaints which have presented issues outside our mandate. Usually, we advise them to petition the Parliament, to complain to the European Commission or to the national or regional Ombudsman’s office in their Member State.

GBF : How far are you in your effort to create an effective network of redress for the grievances from the national level ? Who should supervise Community law at the level of the Member States ? How could complaining citizens be given more rights to take part in this process at the national level and what has been achieved until now ?

JS : We have started a liaison network in September 1996 with the national and regional Ombudsmen’s offices and similar bodies, usually committees for petitions in national or regional parliaments, to encourage them to deal with Community law complaints and to inform the public about it. When the Amsterdam Treaty comes into force next year, questions related to visa, asylum and immigrationwill fall under Community law. These are traditionally reasons for a number of complaints to national ombudsmen, so this remedy must be ready by then to act properly and promptly. Today, it seems that this can be achieved, because the national
offices have demonstrated an active will to fulfil their obligations in this area.

To Avoid Proceedings in Court

GBF : As for the grievances that are in your domain of competence, which kind of power has the European Ombudsman since you cannot take the most litigious complaints against the Commission, the Council or the Parliament to the European Court of Justice ? Why aren't you allowed to investigate the work of the Committee of Petitions in the European Parliament ?

JS : The European Ombudsman has the powers to deal with complaints which are normal in a modern Ombudsman institution in Europe today, the right to investigate, to look for a friendly solution, to publicly draft a recommendation, to undo an instance of maladministration and to send a special report on a case of maladministration to the European Parliament. Furthermore, the Ombudsman, if and when revealing criminal activities within the administration, has an obligation to inform the police or in a less significant case initiate a disciplinary process. So far these powers have been enough. I do not believe that the European Ombudsman should need to go to Court to obtain results. If the institutions and bodies are not ready to undo maladministration and raise the level of the administration from the citizen’s point of view without costly and time-consuming court proceedings, I think the EU has a very grave problem on its hands. A problem that litigation can hardly take away. If those responsible do not feel any commitment for a better administration, it cannot be imposed on them by litigation or fines. But so far the institutions and bodies have demonstrated a clear commitment towards a more open, social and human administration by accepting proposals of friendly solutions and draft recommendations when called for. The right to petition the Parliament is a citizen’s right established in the Maastricht Treaty as well as the right to complain to the European Ombudsman. It is for the Parliament to organise and supervise how petitions from European citizens are dealt with, as one of its political obligations. There is no such Ombudsman system that I know of which supervises the political work of a legislative body. In the home of the Ombudsman institution, Sweden, the Parliament elects an Ombudsman to supervise "legality", that is to say, good administration by the public bodies independent of it, but under its general supervision. To turn this principle upside down on the European level does not seem right, and it is not what the Ombudsman system was set up for. So the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions should receive guidance, assistance and supervision from the European Parliament as a whole to carry out its work in the best possible way for the European citizens.

GBF : In order to finish establishing your office, and make it fully operational, you have asked for the inclusion of a new provision in the Rules of Procedure to deal with the Ombudsman's annual reports and special reports. Why is this important and when will it be achieved? What has to be reformed in the work of the Ombudsman and the European Parliament to maintain the confidence of European citizens ?

JS : The Rules of the Parliament should include a provision about how the annual reports and the special reports that the Ombudsman presents in accordance with his statute are dealt with by the Parliament. So far the practice adopted has been very good. But it would be good to have a provision that ensures that there is a main committee which always would have lead responsibility even if other committees could provide it with any expert advice needed, depending on the issue in question. I feel that this is the only proper way to guarantee that the treatment of reports should be consistent in the long run and seem correct in the eyes of European citizens. I hope that the new rules could be adopted before the end of this Legislature, that is before 31.07.1999. To maintain the confidence of European citizens we have to manage to deal with their complaints properly and promptly. We must manage to decide on admissibility within one month and to close a case in one year. I am sorry to say that we have not yet achieved this goal and that we need more resources to do so. It is of course not only important to arrive at decisions without wasting time, we should also obtain results for the complainants where they are entitled to get them. The results have been getting better each year, but there is still a lot to be done in this aspect. I would like to stress that we also try to help those citizens who complain on issues outside our mandate. Today we manage to refer about 70% of them to a competent body, most often the national Ombudsmen’s offices, so they do not have to leave us empty-handed.

More Complaints with Interpol

GBF : Under the Amsterdam Treaty, the "Third Pillar" which includes Interpol is being brought within the Ombudsman's mandate, as well as asylum and immigration matters which will now come under Community law. Have you already received complaints in these domains ? What kind of changes will it bring in the way in which you presently work ?

JS : We have not yet received any complaints in this domain. Europol will surely give rise to a growing number of complaints as its activities develop on the European level. Police work is necessary and important to maintain law and order in a society, but in its nature there are elements which give citizens reasons to complain. Police matters are a normal cause for complaint in many Member States.

GBF : How should applicant States be informed about their future responsibilities and obligations under the Amsterdam Treaty ? Will you undertake special activities to inform their citizens of their right to complain ? Do you expect more difficulties in the implementation of Community law when there is no national Ombudsman ? How would you then proceed ?

JS : I do believe that the fact that visa, asylum and immigration issues will become Community law must mean that the national Ombudsmen’s offices and similar bodies will need a lot of information and advisory back-up, which they are expecting that we should provide or at least ensure that it is provided. We must be able to assist them to ensure that Community law is a living reality at all levels in the Union and that it is applied in the best possible way for citizens. They for their part must see that citizens are informed about their right to address complaints of this sort to them too. The most problematic question concerns what languages one should be entitled to complain in. Many national Ombudsmen’s offices, as a result of complaints under the European convention of human rights and fundamental freedoms, already deal with complaints in other languages than their official languages. We must work for a situation in which you can complain in any EU language in any Member State. There is a national body in all Member States except Italy, which has very active regional ones. I do hope that the Italian Parliament will adopt the draft bill before it and establish a national office in Italy.

A "Service-Minded" Administrative Culture

GBF : You have repeatedly asked for the adoption of a Code of good administrative behaviour, in the same way as rules on public access to documents have been adopted by the Community institutions and bodies. Which improvements are you expecting from it ? Do you really believe that a "more service-minded administrative culture" is possible at a European level where there is a strong tradition of confidentiality ? Which are the Member States that are the most in favour of it and the ones that are the most reticent ? Why ?

JS : I do think that there is a commitment in the Community administration for a more service-minded administrative culture, yes I do. I have reason to believe that the Code of good administrative behaviour in relation to European citizens will already be adopted this year at least by the European Commission. This kind of code exists in many Member States in different forms of laws or soft laws, ranging from the Nordic countries, through United Kingdom, to Portugal. OECD recommends it strongly as a way to raise the quality of administration. Most recently laws on good administrative practice were adopted in Portugal and in United Kingdom where they are considering a Freedom of Information Act. The recent establishment of a Ombudsman took place in Belgium on the federal level last year and in Greece on the national level only this year. So things are moving for the better also in the Member States.

GBF : How successful have you been in your demand to make public some meetings of the Council or those of the Commission ?

JS : So far I have not registered any significant success although the UK Presidency was clearly in favour of progress in this field. But the new provisions in the Amsterdam Treaty indicating that decisions should be taken "as openly as possible" and the insertion of the word "democracy" must mean that at least meetings where decisions are taken on rules binding for all European citizens must be open to the public. All the fifteen Member States have shown that this is not only "possible" but also required by their Constitutions.

GBF: What will you consider as your main achievement when your mandate expires at the end of 1999 ? Do you believe that the European Union will have the ability to sufficiently reform itself, so as not to block its functioning, before the next enlargements ? What will be your main contribution in helping to achieve these reforms ?

JS : The most important achievement for any Ombudsman is to help citizens to obtain the rights that they should have under the law and to undo instances of maladministration which have been harmful to them. I do hope that my Office will have helped a lot of individual citizens by then. On the issue of reforms to raise the quality of administrative action in relation to citizens, I believe that the EU has both the capacity and the will to advance. On the institutional reforms, I do not think I can be of much help. There must be experts available who are better informed on this issue than I. I should stick to my task : to help the European citizens if they have administrative problems with the European Community institutions and bodies and thus to improve relations between them and the European administration.