Commission ‘in breach of duty’, says ombudsman

Commission ‘in breach of duty’, says ombudsman

The ombudsman slams the Commission for disrespect for him and for freedom of information.

The European ombudsman has condemned the European Commission for failing to comply with a ruling that it should publish correspondence with the German carmaker Porsche.

Nikiforos Diamandouros, the EU’s ombudsman, is so exasperated with a lack of co-operation from the Commission that for the first time he has asked the European Parliament to intervene on his behalf.

In a report published today (4 March), the ombudsman said that the Commission had ignored his October 2008 recommendation that its officials should grant access to the documents to Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental campaign group.

Access-to-documents request

Friends of the Earth had filed an official access-to-documents request in March 2007, about letters and meetings that car manufacturers had with Günter Verheugen, then the European commissioner for enterprise, about reducing their carbon dioxide emissions.

While the Commission did offer some information, it refused to release three letters sent by Porsche to Verheugen. The Commission argued that releasing the letters would “undermine” the protection of Porsche’s commercial interests.

Diamandouros accused the Commission of a “breach of duty” under EU law and “maladministration” in the case. He said he had offered EU officials every chance to fix the impasse over the last two years.

Eroding citizens’ trust

He concluded that the Commission risked “eroding citizens’ trust in the Commission and undermining the capacity of the European ombudsman”.

Diamandouros described the Commission’s attitude as “detrimental not only to inter-institutional dialogue, but also to the public image of the EU”.

The case has become a test of the extent to which the work of the ombudsman’s office is respected by EU institutions. His report will add to tensions between the Commission and the Parliament, which recently resolved to draft a new inter-institutional co-operation pact.

Friends of the Earth filed a complaint with the ombudsman in late 2007. His staff then inspected the documents at the Commission’s offices in September 2008 and concluded shortly after, in a draft report, that the Commission “had wrongly refused access” to the letters, adding that they should be released in their entirety, or at least the bits that were not commercially sensitive, by January 2009.

The Commission, however, requested six extensions, arguing that it needed more time to consult Porsche over whether they would agree to release the letters. In September 2009, the Commission sent a reply that it would grant Friends of the Earth only partial access to the three letters.

“We don’t know what is in these letters. It starts speculation as to whether either Verheugen or the Commission wants to hide something,” said Paul de Clerck, from Friends of the Earth Europe.

“We were partially dependent on the company involved and we had to respect their part of the bargain as well,” said Commission spokesman Michael Mann. “We have nothing to hide.”

The ombudsman said in his report that he still had not received information from the Commission as to whether it has officially notified Porsche of its decision to release edited versions of the letter.

Mann said Commission officials had notified Porsche in the last few days of their intention to release edited copies of the letters.

The ombudsman’s report has been sent to the European Parliament’s petitions committee which is expected to study it over the next weeks.

Constant Brand