In a press conference in Brussels today the European Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, presented his Annual Report 2010. The full Report (79 pages) and an 8-page Overview are available here.

The European Ombudsman explained that the key points of his new strategy include: (a) strengthening the ongoing dialogue with complainants, civil society, and other stakeholders, (b) identifying best practices from Ombudsmen in the Member States, with whom the European Ombudsman cooperates through the European Network of Ombudsmen and (c) enhancing the Ombudsman’s role in promoting an administrative culture of service in the EU institutions. Such a culture involves, among other things, taking a proactive approach when interacting with citizens, as well as being ready to do more for citizens than merely to fulfill the institutions’ legal obligations. The Overview highlights ten “star cases” that serve as examples of best practice in reacting to complaints. In this respect, the European Ombudsman underscores the example of the European Medicines Agency (EMA): “By taking the important policy step of adopting and publishing a new access to documents policy, EMA gave wider effect to two recommendations that I made to it.”

As to the key statistics for 2010, the European Omudsman received a total of 2,667 complaints in 2010, compared to 3,098 complaints in 2009. 744 of those were within his mandate. The number of opened inquiries – 335 – and closed inquiries – 326 – remained stable in 2010 as compared to the previous year. This trend confirms, according to Nikiforos Diamandouros, that more people are now turning to the European Ombudsman for the right reasons.

Regarding the origin of complaints, Germany and Spain remained the source of the greatest number of complaints, but relative to the size of their population, the greatest proportion of complaints came from smaller Member States, namely, Luxembourg, Cyprus, and Belgium. The majority of complaints, i.e., 78%, were submitted by individual citizens, while 22% came from companies, NGOs, or other organizations and associations. However, as Diamandouros points out, complaints from the latter category are more often admissible and also lead to investigations more often.

In more than 70% of all cases received in 2010, the European Ombudsman was able to help the complainant by opening an inquiry into the case, transferring it to a competent body, or giving advice on where to turn. In 55% of the closed cases, the institution concerned accepted a friendly solution or settled the matter. In the other cases, the Ombudsman either did not find an instance of maladministration, or issued a recommendation that was accepted by the institution, a critical remark, or a special report to Parliament. As Diamandouros observes, the sustained reduction in critical remarks issued by his office is further positive evidence that the EU institutions are taking a more proactive role in resolving complaints and enabling win-win outcomes: in 2010, they made critical remarks in 33 cases, compared to 35 cases in 2009, and 44 cases in 2008. Understandably, most inquiries opened in 2010 (65%) concerned the Commission since the Commission is the main Union institution that makes decisions having a direct impact on citizens.

To conclude, with respect to the content of the complaints, by far the most common allegation examined by the Ombudsman was lack of transparency in the EU administration. This allegation arose in 33% of all closed inquiries and included refusal of information and of access to documents. Diamandouros notes with concern that the number of transparency cases has remained consistently high over recent years. Other types of alleged maladministration pertained to problems with the execution of EU contracts or calls for tenders, unfairness, abuse of power, and discrimination.