In an interview with Euronews, Emily O'Reilly said citizens were "almost predestined" to distrust the EU institutions.
The mounting political scandals besieging the European Union risk having a "shattering effect" on how people perceive and trust the entire project of European integration, Emily O'Reilly has warned.
"You cannot have political legitimacy without moral authority. You can't have political legitimacy either unless the people (have) trust in you," the European Ombudsman told Euronews.
"Brussels, for most people, is an idea. And it's an idea that is very far away," she went on.
"They're almost predestined to distrust it because they don't understand it. So, therefore, it's quite fragile the trust that there can be between the European Union and its citizens. And therefore, when the EU does things which damage that trust, it can have almost a shattering effect on people's belief in the EU."
In recent months Brussels has been at the centre of an unusually large number of controversies that have attracted a great deal of criticism and scrutiny over how European policymakers conduct their daily work.
The scandals include the unreleased text messages between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla around vaccine procurement, the free flights paid by Qatar to a top EU official, a backroom deal to appoint the European Parliament's secretary general and the revolving doors exposed by an aggressive lobbying campaign by Uber.
As the main office in charge of investigating maladministration cases across the EU institutions, the European Ombudsman has become involved in all these polemics, pointing the finger at the wrongdoing, requesting clarifications and issuing recommendations.
"You have to draw the dots between the small little incidents that you might not think are particularly important and the bigger picture – the way that they lead to or can lead to distrust by the citizens on the entire European Union project," O'Reilly told Euronews.
"It's also used by people who are sceptical of the EU and people who are hostile to the EU," she added.
"It's very important that the EU acts to the highest possible ethical standards in order to protect its political legitimacy."
Among the myriad of headlines, no other scandal has captured more attention and censure than the European Parliament's corruption scandal.
The intricate saga focuses on a cash-for-favours scheme that allegedly saw Qatar and Morocco pay large sums of money and substantial gifts to lawmakers in an attempt to influence the decision-making process inside the hemicycle.
Both countries deny any wrongdoing.
Five individuals, including two sitting MEPs, have been criminally charged as part of the ongoing investigation. A third lawmaker is fighting extradition from Italy to Belgium.
Over €1.5 million in cash have been seized by the Belgian police across dozens of home and office searches, in addition to the requisitioning of parliamentary computers to prevent the erasure of key data.
"The graphics were quite dramatic. We saw literally euro notes, we saw suitcases. So everybody’s sort of cartoon-like idea of corruption was served up to them," O'Reilly said when asked about the so-called Qatargate.
The Ombudsman, however, did not appear to be particularly surprised about the alleged cash exchanges. In her view, the anti-corruption rules put in place by the European Parliament are "not really enforced and monitored," opening up a loophole that can make misdeeds easier to conceal.
"I suppose, in a way, this was a sort of a scandal or an accident waiting to happen," she noted.
In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola put forward a series of measures to crack down on misconduct, such as new rules of access to parliamentary premises and more detailed declarations on conflicts of interests.
As the reforms are not yet final, O'Reilly avoided drawing any clear-cut conclusions but said her office had given ideas to Metsola's office on how to design a "good ethics framework."
"Things tend to happen very fast and quite dramatically when there's a scandal," O'Reilly said.
"Everything is going along at a certain complacent range for many, many years, even decades. And then there's a scandal and suddenly everybody wants to do something to fix this thing, even though it has been in plain sight for quite a while."