European Commission rejects Ombudsman tobacco ruling

Emily O’Reilly’s ruling found the Commission breached UN transparency rules

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly found the EU’s executive body’s approach to publicising meetings with tobacco lobbyists  was “inadequate, unreliable and unsatisfactory”.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly found the EU’s executive body’s approach to publicising meetings with tobacco lobbyists was “inadequate, unreliable and unsatisfactory”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The European Commission has rejected a ruling by EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly which found that the Commission breached UN transparency rules in its meetings with representatives of the tobacco industry.

In a ruling published on Monday, Ms O’Reilly said the EU’s executive body’s approach to publicising meetings with tobacco lobbyists during the tenure of Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was “inadequate, unreliable and unsatisfactory”.

Noting that the EU is a party to UN World Health Organisation (WHO) rules governing transparency tobacco lobbying, Ms O Reilly said the Commission had failed to properly implement those rules. But the Commission said that it believed its interpretation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is “the correct one” and that its practices “offer a high degree of transparency.”

The Ombudsman investigation was initiated following a complaint by Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based NGO. In her findings, Ms O Reilly found that, while the European Commission’s Directorate-general for Health acted within transparency guidelines, this was insufficient as several departments in the Commission are involved in the development of health policy.

“The European Commission has a particular responsibility in its role as initiator of EU legislation to ensure that policy-making in public health is as transparent as possible. This is all the more true when it comes to tobacco control, for which there is a dedicated UN framework,” Ms O Reilly said.

She called on the Commission to proactively publish online all meetings with tobacco lobbyists, or their legal representatives, as well as the minutes of those meetings. She invited the Commission to set out how it will implement the recommendations by December 31st this year. A spokesman for the European Commission said the Commission “will carefully assess the Ombudsman’s report and respond within the deadline.”

The issue of tobacco lobbying is a sensitive one for the European Commission following the resignation of the former Maltese health commissioner during the last Commission prompted by an investigation into his role in an alleged bribery scandal involving the tobacco industry.

Olivier Hoedeman of Corporate Europe Observatory, the NGO which called for the inquiry, said the Ombudsman’s ruling was “a significant victory for the fight against the sinister scheming” of the tobacco industry. “The Commission’s complacency and secrecy over its contacts with the tobacco industry are deeply regrettable.

Irish MEP Nessa Childers, a member of the European Parliament Environment and Public Health Committee, welcomed the EU Ombudsman’s finding. “The Commission has only been divulging details of meetings and documentation when pushed by MEPs in parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests,” she said, noting that the issue of tobacco lobbying is relevant to the ongoing negotiations on the EU-US trade deal.

The European Ombudsman investigates allegations of maladministration in the EU institutions and bodies. Ms O’Reilly, a former journalist and ombudsman for Ireland, assumed the position of European Ombudsman in October 2013 and was re-elected by the European Parliament last December. Her term runs until 2019.