European Council transparency criticised by Emily O’Reilly

European Ombudsman tells Oireachtas Committee council not a ‘star pupil’

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly:  the  processes of the European Council, which is comprised of the heads of state in the EU, remained oblique. Photograph: Maxwell’s

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly: the processes of the European Council, which is comprised of the heads of state in the EU, remained oblique. Photograph: Maxwell’s

 

Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, has said the European Council has not been a “star pupil” when it comes to transparency and openness.

Ms O’Reilly said the decisions and deliberative processes of the council, which is comprised of the heads of state in the European Union, remained oblique.

The ombudsman was appearing before the all-party Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs.

She said that after engagement with her office the European Commission had made strides in opening up its processes to public scrutiny.

She also instanced progress within agencies such as the European Medicines Board.

“It has made trade deals and clinical trials much more transparent [and] the world has not stopped turning,” she said.

She said that given the crucial role of the European Council, its lack of transparency was something that needed to be addressed.

Ms O’Reilly said last year she had launched a strategic inquiry into transparency and accountability in the council.

She indicated the area she focused on was not the meetings of ministers or heads of state, which had a public element, but in the preparatory discussions and work that takes place in advance of such meetings. These meetings she said involved ambassadors and civil servants and did not take place in public.

‘Nuts and bolts’

“It is at this level that the nuts and bolts of legislation takes place and legislative decisions are sometimes made.”

She said such processes needed to be documented and be accessible.

“Both of these factors are essential for facilitating public scrutiny,” she said.

“National representatives are democratically accountable to national parliaments . . . To hold government to account they need to know how governments position themselves in the legislative process. This is lacking [at the European Council level].”

She said she had made a series of recommendations and suggestions to address deficiencies in this area with some progress including a new internal recording system.

However, she said that there was no uniform approach and the council was taking a selective approach to transparency.

Ms O’Reilly also told the committee she had taken proactive steps to encourage more transparency during the Brexit negotiations.

She said she had written to both the European Commission and Council, emphasising the importance of citizens and national parliaments being able to follow the process, which she said would “affect the lives of millions and especially on this island.

“Thankfully the EU has adopted a progressive stance in relation to publishing all important documents during the negotiations, including the EU guidelines, negotiating directives and position papers.”

However, she added: “Unfortunately, the UK side has not been seen to be as transparent.”

She also said that her office had conducted a year-long inquiry on European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi’s membership of a Washington DC based “Group of 30”. It is comprised of a private group of 30 senior bankers, public officials and academics.

Draghi’s membership

She said, based on the investigation, she had asked Mr Draghi to suspend his membership.

“[The group] holds two private meetings per year and includes representatives of some global banks which the ECB supervises as part of its banking supervision mandate.

“My main recommendation was that president Draghi suspend his membership of this group, until he leaves office, in order to protect the ECB from any perception that their independence could be compromised.

“I also recommended that no future executive board members become members of the ‘Group of 30’.”

The ECB is expected to respond to the recommendations in April.

Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond said he believed international trade agreements such as the Canadian-EU trade agreement had struggled not because of what they contained but the secrecy surrounding them, which he contended was counterproductive.

He said when he had scrutinised the draft of an agreement he had to surrender his mobile phone and had not been able to take notes. He said that secrecy had become an important debating point for those who opposed the agreements.

Earlier, a number of Irish MEPs had addressed the committee about EU parliamentary affairs, particularly its deliberations on Brexit.

Brexit and Border

There were differences of opinion over Brexit between Fine Gael MEPs Maireád McGuinness and Deirdre Clune on the one hand, and Sinn Féin MEPs Liadh Ní Riada, Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy.

The Sinn Féin MEPs argued that the agreement in December as it related to the Border was a fudge. Both Ms McGuinness and Ms Clune rejected this.

“I do not believe there was a fudge there,” said Ms Clune. “The whole process was taken seriously by the EU Commission and Michel Barnier and the UK will be held to that. The groundwork has been put in place.”

Ms Anderson said Sinn Féin did not accept there were cast-iron guarantees.

“What’s playing out this week is proof positive than they are not cast-iron guarantees. We know how duplicitous the British are and they will roll back from negotiations,” she said.

There were also differences of view between Mr Carty and Gerard Craughwell after the Independent Senator said Sinn Féin should be arguing the case against Brexit in Westminster rather than persisting in its abstentionist policy.

Independent MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan said he had been unable to get any information or responses to his inquiries on how an Irish person had been appointed to a high-level European committee on fake news. He was referring to Stephen Rae, editor-in-chief of Independent News and Media.