I am honoured to address you today to wish a very happy 25th birthday to the European Ombudsman. My heartfelt thanks to you, Ms. O'Reilly, for inviting me to speak and convey my utmost respect for your office - an integral piece in the jigsaw of European democracy.
The work of the Ombudsman is more important now than ever, as Europe suffers in the grip of a second wave of COVID-19. The pandemic has already taken the lives of more than 240,000 people across our continent, and shows no signs of letting up.
Behind this horrific number of course are individual people - those who have loved ones and livelihoods. Ordinary Europeans whose worlds have been turned upside down. They deserve an effective Union which works for them in an open and transparent way.
The Ombudsman serves as a bulwark for ensuring this is the case; a safeguard for the treasured idea of European citizenship. Any EU citizen and anyone residing in a Member State can turn to the European Ombudsman to ensure their rights are respected - as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
This could be the right to vote in European and local elections, the right to petition the European Parliament, or the right to submit a complaint about maladministration.
The link between Ombudsman and citizen has been even further strengthened by the role played by the European Parliament in the election process and in the right of its members to ask the Ombudsman to launch enquiries.
I believe that in the past 25 years, the work of the European Ombudsman has been essential to maintaining public trust in the Union.
The Ombudsman has come to be a valuable point of contact for Europeans in the occasionally rather opaque institutional landscape of the EU.
This is certainly true of the current Ombudsman - Ms. O'Reilly has shown great dedication and commitment in her 8 years (and counting) in the role, and I would like to take this opportunity to personally express my praise and gratitude to her.
I say this, as the representative of what you might, call her biggest client, which reflects the high level of direct contact the European Commission enjoys with citizens. Where issues do arise, we work hand in hand with the Ombudsman to ensure she can listen to the views of all involved and come up with possible solutions.
This close cooperation allows us to work together to resolve the vast majority of complaints without the need for maladministration decisions.
This often means we need to strive to improve the way we work. For example, we pledged to start publishing more information about Commissioners' travel expenses in what was described by the Ombudsman as a “very positive step”.
We overhauled the rules around the hundreds of expert groups to improve our oversight, based on proposals presented by the Ombudsman.
And, we worked with the Ombudsman to launch a fast-track procedure concerning access to document inquiries.
To this end, the Commission is also developing an online portal called the Electronic Access to Commission Documents. This will enable Europeans to learn about access to documents, submit new requests, launch an appeal against Commission replies and search for previously disclosed documents requested by other applicants. The portal will go live in the second quarter of 2021 and I believe it will further strengthen transparency in the EU.
These are just some examples of the enormous amount of work being done - in 2019, the Ombudsman helped nearly 20,000 people, launching and resolving hundreds of enquiries.
I have no doubt that Ms. O'Reilly will continue to build on this impressive body of work, and I can assure you all that she will have our full support moving forward.
The Ombudsman's biennial Award for Good Administration, for example, is a creative and positive way to foster good administration, inspire civil servants and give them recognition for the work they do. And I'm not just saying that because the Commission has won the first two overall awards!
Ultimately, all the different institutions, bodies and agencies of the EU have the same goals as the European Ombudsman:
Achieving the highest possible administrative standards in our relations with citizens, associations and businesses.
And increasing confidence and belief in the European institutions while making the benefits of the EU more tangible for Europeans.
None of us are perfect and there will always be mistakes made and problems to fix when it comes to public administration. But by working together we can minimise and resolve these to the advantage of all Europeans.
On behalf not only of the Commission but of all the other institutions, bodies and agencies of the European Union, I will conclude by underlining our wholehearted commitment to work together with you ever more closely, Emily, as we look forward to the next 25 years of the European Ombudsman.