Ireland's first female Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly on democracy and transparency within the EU

Ireland's first female Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly on democracy and transparency within the EU
By Katy Dartford
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The Global Conversation asks Emily O'Reilly why she wants to be re-elected for another five-year term.

Emily O'Reilly is a former journalist and broadcaster who's been a European Ombudsman since 2013. She is seeking a second term in office later this year.

We discussed her opinions on democracy and transparency within the EU.

Firstly, does she find the term "ombudsman" a little outdated?:

Emily O'Reilly: Actually that’s probably the question I get asked the most. I remember when I became an ombudsman in Ireland in 2003 the first question I was asked was if I going to be called ombudsman or ombudswoman. I said I didn't mind either really. And immediately half the Swedish community in Ireland wrote to the Irish Times saying that I didn't understand the Swedish language because ombudsman is a Swedish word and it's supposed to encompass everybody. Though in other languages it does have the feminine.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: So you feel pretty comfortable with it?

Emily O'Reilly: I do yes.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: What would you give democracy and transparency in the EU out of 10?

Emily O'Reilly: It depends who or what institution you're talking about. I think the institutions have been forced, because of the various crises over the last few years and a greater heightened consciousness of what goes on in Brussels, to become more transparent.

And I think it's interesting that one of the commissioners has actually been given the title of commissioner for values and transparency, so transparency has now come centre stage from the margins.

I think the real problem is when you work in Brussels and see how the institutions work you do see that it is democratic. And so on. But from outside Brussels can be almost unintelligible to a lot of people the language the, multicultural nature of it.

And I think people don't understand how things work and that leaves a vacuum and when there's a vacuum it can quickly be filled with false facts and propaganda and that creates I think a caricature of the EU which can be dangerous as we've seen in recent times.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: Many would look at the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as a perfect example of a process that for most European citizens was in no way transparent.

Emily O'Reilly: I think there was a sense of slight discomfort about that, that's in the political arena. I'll leave that to one side.

But I think I remember a few years ago a committee from the U.K. parliament came over to talk to me because I was doing an investigation into how the laws are debated and discussed in Europe.

And I remember that the chairman of the committee said to me; we send our ministers over to Brussels we've no idea what they're doing with no idea of what they're discussing and what they're deciding.

And I said well why don't you ask them because the accountability is to Westminster to Dublin or whatever and not to Brussels per se.

So I think when people talk about Brussels they forget that Brussels isn't just Brussels. Brussels also Dublin and it's London and Bratislava and it's Paris and Prague and all of the European capitals.

So it can be unfair to say Brussels is undemocratic, Brussels doesn't communicate. And really it's the member states that is Brussels, is the EU. And I think they don't always step up to the plate in terms of communicating the real EU or what actually happens to the people.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: When we look at the recent process of trying to vet some of the commissioners going forward we've seen a whole range of conflicts of interest which Commission nominees have been pulled upon. Is it your impression that this is a process that is working or one which allows some of these people to get to that stage when there are such evident conflicts of interest.

Emily O'Reilly: Well I think what's interesting, I've been following it obviously and I've dealt with those sort of cases over the last while and I suppose one of the more high profile ones I would have dealt was the former president commissioned,

Well the former president of the commission, José Manuel Barroso, decided to take up a position with Goldman Sachs Bank which is quite a controversial bank as you know and people looked into conflicts there and whether was appropriate that somebody who'd held that position should be taking a position in a bank that had been so implicated in the financial crisis on both sides of the Atlantic.

But I think what's interesting, that's happening now, is that those issues of transparency and ethics are coming centre stage and we see it in the hearings and we see it as well on one proposal that the future president of the commission, von der Leyen put forward, which is to have an independent body which will monitor ethics.

So you see it's come, as I say, from the margins and into the centre and I think some of the work I've been doing but also the work that the parliament has been doing, and indeed the media has been doing has sort of formed a coalition where the institutions are being forced to take these issues a lot more seriously.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: You talked about trying to open up the European Union to ordinary citizens. What would you mean by that.?

Emily O'Reilly: I know I always find it strange when you talk about ordinary citizens what are they? I mean people who come to us are ordinary citizens but they're also MEP’s, business interests, civil society and so on.

I think in any of our member states when we go back, possibly not so much now because I think one of the positives ironically of Brexit and other crisis is that it's made Europe much more real to people.

And I think it's humanized it in a way. And people can see the drama and the conflicts and whatever and they have a great understanding.

And it resonates emotionally a lot more with them. But I think prior to that, Europe was distant. And I think most people don't get up in the morning wondering about the democracy and transparency of Europe. Most people get up in the morning and worry about their jobs and their daily lives and what's happening in their own village or towns or government or so on.

But I think given the huge role that Europe, that Brussels, that the legislation plays on the daily lives of people in the UK and other places are now very aware of, I think it's very important that people see what actually happens.

I mean it can be as difficult or as simple as you wish it to be. And I mean the people who put forward the legislation and enact the legislation have come from the member states.

It's our ministers who come over and discuss you know agriculture fisheries or finance or whatever.

And it's our own MEP's our own politicians who come to parliament and become co-legislators at the Council.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: But one of the points about the European Union people may feel its distance because it simply doesn't look like them to a degree. Now there have been massive efforts in terms of gender. But let's look at the European Parliament in terms of its ethnic makeup. The commission has never had someone of colour on it. Now for people millions of Europeans who were nonwhite, the European Union could not look more distant because it doesn't look like them.

Emily O'Reilly: No I think I think you've made a good point there and I was speaking to a young MEP yesterday who wants to do a lot of work on diversity and I think sometimes we limit our discussions about diversity to gender, where you're absolutely right. If you go over to the European Parliament and certainly, when you are in plenary and look - you see that it does not reflect the Europe that we see on the streets right across from west to east. I think that is a problem.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: Okay. And just very finally because I know you're seeking a second term. I mean can you promise that in your second term that you want to keep the office in Strasbourg because there has been talk about you moving permanently to Brussels.

Emily O'Reilly: Nothing has changed. The seat of the office is in Strasbourg and it remains that way.

Darren McCaffrey, Euronews: And what is your number one ambition - in one word - for the next five years.

Emily O'Reilly To be even more effective than I have been.

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