Ombudswoman brushes off National Front MEP’s discrimination complaint

Emily O'Reilly, a former journalist and broadcaster, became Ireland's first female Ombudsman in 2003. She has been European Ombudsman since July 2013. [European Parliament]

A National Front MEP has called on Emily O’Reilly to examine discrimination against political minorities in the European Parliament. He says the situation has worsened since Brexit. EURACTIV France reports.

Elected in 2013, the ombudswoman has taken a hard line on conflicts of interest, revolving doors and transparency in the European Institutions. But she would never have expected a call for help from the French National Front (FN).

Yet this is exactly what happened at a hearing with MEPs on Tuesday (7 February).

Bruno Gollnisch, a confidant of FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen who was first elected 28 years ago, has recently seen his parliamentary allowance suspended. Like certain other members of his party, Gollnisch is accused of falsely employing a parliamentary assistant.

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EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly warned that the bloc needs to create jobs and restore citizen confidence in order to stop a “wave of populism” in the West. EURACTIV Spain reports.

For the veteran extreme-right MEP, his assistant’s “voluntary” campaigning activities do not represent a conflict of interests. “Parliamentary assistants from all political parties do this.”

Gollnisch is one of a number of FN politicians ordered to reimburse the European Parliament for money paid to one of his assistants, whose job had nothing to do with the institution or his mandate as an MEP.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right party and presidential candidate, has also been ordered to pay back the salaries of some of her assistants.

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France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is also an MEP and a frontrunner in the French presidential election in April-May, has defied a deadline set by EU authorities for her to repay funds they claim she has misspent.

“I intend to take this to the European ombudswoman because I think the internal procedures of the European Parliament are her competence, because we are European citizens like anyone else,” he said. “The polarisation of the Parliament’s administration and its repeated actions against members of the minority, particularly since Brexit, is a problem that needs the ombudswoman’s attention.”

O’Reilly responded that she had “no role to play in the political sphere” and gave no signal that she would follow up on Gollnisch’s complaint. The ombudswoman was backed up by Danielle Auroi, the president of the French parliament’s European affairs committee, who agreed that this matter did not fall under her competences.

Fighting populism

Since 2013, the European ombudsman’s service has been in charge of observing the transparency of the European institutions and can open its own cases or follow up on complaints.

Among her objectives, O’Reilly highlighted her desire to fight the rising tide of populism by strengthening the credibility of the institutions.

“Making the institutions more transparent will not solve all the problems of citizen satisfaction, but it is necessary,” she said.

One of O’Reilly’s missions for the coming months is to make progress on the EU rules concerning revolving doors. This has come under the spotlight since former Commission president José Manuel Barroso took up a position as non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International.

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Emily O’Reilly has urged European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to address widespread concerns and clarify the institution’s position on the appointment of his predecessor, José Manuel Barroso, as the non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs.

While the EU executive accepts the need to extend the cooling off period demanded between high public office and the private sector, “the acceptance of certain jobs will still be problematic even after three or five years”.

What is more, “the Commission still refuses to publish the opinions of the ethics committee on the activities of Commissioners after their mandates”, O’Reilly added. “The problem is that the ethics committee is not independent because it is the Commission that appoints its members.”

The Barroso affair left a bitter aftertaste in Brussels, where the executive’s response was feeble. “For three months, the Commission just said he had not done anything illegal,” the ombudswoman said.

O’Reilly now plans to re-open her examination of the code of conduct for Commissioners. “I received a letter a few days ago from EU civil servants who are unhappy with the way the Commission managed the Barroso affair,” she said.

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