The EU's 'invisible man' who has power over all our lives

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HE DEALS with thousands of complaints each year about the "maladministration" at the heart of Europe's governing institutions.

He is duty bound to respond to the concerns of any one of the European Union's citizens and is tasked with "bringing the union closer" to the 500 million people that live within it. But for most Europeans, the name Nikiforos Diamandouros will mean very little.

Despite overseeing the work of dozens of EU bodies on behalf of ordinary people, Mr Diamandouros – the European Ombudsman – has a very low profile. Nowhere is this more evident than the United Kingdom, which last year came last in a pan- European league table of complaints lodged with his office in Strasbourg. The complaint rate in Scotland, meanwhile, is almost non-existent, with just one case submitted for consideration during 2009, and even that turned out to be inadmissible.

"I don't have a clear answer why," Mr Diamandouros tells The Scotsman in the European Parliament's offices in Edinburgh. "I am inclined to believe that the under-representation of Scotland in the European institutions might make it less likely that Scots relate through their MEPs or their friends in the European Commission to the European scene.

"The confusing and puzzling thing is that the UK has the densest network of ombudsman schemes in the EU, and probably the world – and then you have this paradox with a significant lack of awareness of the European institutions and the Ombudsman in particular."

Despite his wide-reaching role – he oversees each one of the EU's institutions – the Ombudsman's reach is limited. He cannot intervene in the application of EU law in member states, and wields little statutory power to compel the organisations to comply with his recommendations. "There is no room for sanctions or for issuing binding decisions," he explains. "My power is essentially the power of persuasion; I need to try and convince and if I manage to convince them, I am doing my job. The degree of compliance with my recommendations is very high. That means I manage to engage the European institutions sufficiently to be able to convince them that what I say is right."

Mr Diamandouros adds: "Ultimately, I have the power of publicity. No institution or elected or appointed official enjoys the prospect of being put before public view with an accusation of having acted improperly."

In all, the Ombudsman receives about 3,000 to 4,000 complaints a year, the vast majority (60-70 per cent) of which come from the work of the commission, and then the European Parliament (about 12 per cent). About a tenth come from the European personnel and selection office, from disgruntled applicants to the EU civil service, while the European Anti Fraud Office generates about 9 per cent of his work.

As well as personal issues surrounding recruitment or lack of correspondence from civil servants, Mr Diamandouros considers gripes about tender processes and a lack of transparency.

Long held in disdain by sceptics, the EU is routinely accused of secrecy, unaccountability and a stifling red tape that provides a convenient gravy train for its employees. As the mood in the UK shifts towards open government and a scepticism about the trustworthiness of politicians and public bodies, the distant governmental offices of Brussels are an obvious target for reform. And with that scepticism only likely to increase in the event of a Conservative election victory, the infamous bureaucracy of the EU could come under even greater scrutiny on these shores.

As a man tasked with overseeing the administrative workings of all of the EU, including such lesser known institutions as the European Court of Auditors, Mr Diamandouros is better placed than most to comment. "I fully understand and appreciate the concerns," he says of the charges of bureaucracy. "And yes, I can sympathise with it, but you have to put it into perspective. In sheer numbers, the notorious Brussels monster is less than 36,000 people. We are not talking about anything particularly large, even by a Scottish size.

He goes on: "It is a small bureaucracy, but that does not alleviate the problems of how it operates. The charges of bureaucracy has to do with the fact that the union was constructed as far back as the 1950s as a top-down organisation to promote internal market and competition. All of these things are bureaucratic, highly administrative and, to the layman, utterly boring. But the effects – freedom of movement etc – come with an extremely large amount of paperwork to ensure they work. It is this disjuncture for the need to ensure you are able to enjoy your rights that creates red tape."

But Mr Diamandouros admits the EU could do more to simplify its procedures, and engage with its citizens: "We should try move in the direction of creating simpler procedures, in what are, by definition, extremely complex administrative issues.

"I am trying to reduce it in my own office, by reducing the size and structure of my decisions. I have adopted plain English as a rule and this is something that should be expanded for the benefit of the average citizen."

But what of transparency? The new watchword in UK political life would seem to be a more difficult goal to achieve in Brussels, especially without the political jolt of the overwhelming expenses scandal that helped things along in Britain.

As one who has call to police the information released – or indeed suppressed – by EU civil servants, Mr Diamandouros notes a gradual shift towards a more open style of government: "There is no question that transparency is now the important term in the vocabulary of the European Union.

"Transparency is very important, but transparency is not an end in itself. You should not be transparent for the sake of it, you want to be transparent because this way citizens will have greater trust in you, and democracy will work well. Transparency is a means towards promoting better governance."

However, stepping back, the Ombudsman, with diplomatic hat firmly on his head, adds: "Transparency cannot be the alpha and omega of everything, because on the other side of transparency is privacy. The issue is how do you balance that in a well-regulated system? If you have absolute transparency, it means you would have no privacy. And to have absolute privacy means you have no transparency."

He adds: "Yes, the European institutions are much more aware of transparency and it is making significant headway in the European Union, but there will be challenges associated with how we manage the proper balance."

Fundamentally, Mr Diamandouros notes, the challenge will be about changing a European governance culture that has evolved over half a century.

"All of the institutions were not created to be accountable or transparent," he says. "This was not in the books 60 years ago. They nurtured an administrative culture that was not geared to transparency. Suddenly being told 'you have to change' is the same as me being told 'as of tomorrow you have to wear a dress, instead of a suit'. You have to negotiate that and see how we do it.

"Yes, there are lingering reticences in the institutions which are at a loss about how to balance things. That resistance is being eroded and there is a movement forward. In ten years, we will be much better off than we are now and, right now, we are in a much better position than in 2000."

BACKGROUND

Born in 1942 in Athens, Greece, Nikiforos Diamandouros is an academic by trade.

A professor of comparative politics at Athens University since 1993, and a noted author on democracy, nation building and the relationship between culture and politics, he has also held teaching and research appointments at the State University of New York and Columbia University.

After serving as director of the Greek National Centre for Social Research, he was appointed the first National Ombudsman of Greece, a position he held from 1998 to 2003.

That year, he was elected European Ombudsman, succeeding previous incumbent Jacob Sderman, a Finnish lawyer who fulfilled the role from its inception in 1995.