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EU institutions not citizen-friendly enough, ombudsman says

European Union institutions are not service-orientated enough, thus failing to bridge the gap between EU administration and citizens, the bloc's ombudsman said Thursday.

„The EU institutions have become more citizen-orientated in the last years, but they have to try much harder,” EU ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros said when presenting the 2006 report on his activities. „An open-minded, citizen-centered and service-orientated administration is the key to bridge the gap between citizens and institutions,” he added. Last year, the ombudsman dealt with a total of 582 inquiries by EU citizens and companies. One in four cases of alleged maladministration in the EU institutions were complaints about a lack of transparency. Referring to an increase in the number of critical remarks he had to make to the EU bodies in 2006, Diamandouros said that the way in which public administration reacted to complaints was „a key measure of how citizen-centered it is and how well it contributes to the promotion of a service culture.”

EU institutions and civil servants often had a wrong understanding of what constituted good administration, Diamandouros said. „Saying 'What I did was not illegal' is not good administration,” the EU ombudsman stressed. „Public administration exists to serve citizens and not the other way round,” he added. Altogether 3,830 citizens last year e-mailed, faxed and mailed complaints to the ombudsman. Two-thirds of the complaints received were outside his mandate, Diamandouros said, adding that many people were not aware that the EU's ombudsman cannot investigate alleged failures of national or regional authorities in the 27 member states, even if they involve community law. A total of 114 cases were closed without a finding of maladministration in the EU institutions, and 89 cases were settled by the bloc's bodies itself, the report said. Spain heads the list of countries with the most complainants, with 20% of cases submitted, followed by Germany (14%), France (9%) and Belgium (6%). Relative to their population, however, most complaints came from small EU member states Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg.

Diamandouros also said that he was expecting an influx of complaints from EU newcomers Romania and Bulgaria which joined the bloc on January 1, 2007. Complaints from the bloc's new Eastern member states that entered the EU in May 2004, mainly dealt with alleged discrimination of their languages in the day-to-day business of the EU institutions, including a lack of translated documents. According to the ombudsman's 2006 report, 66% of the complaints are about the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. „It is vital that the commission take a leading role in promoting a service culture,” Diamandouros said, underlining that it is the bloc's main institution making decisions which have a direct impact on the life of EU citizens.

Some 13% of citizens in 2006 were angered about how they were treated by the European Personnel Selection Office, 8% complained about the European Parliament and 2% about the EU's Council of Ministers, the bloc's secretariat. Following inquiries by the ombudsman, the commission corrected misleading information on air passenger rights and improved the clarity of documents for EU funding. The EU institutions also settled bills, released documents and provided explanations for selection procedures, remedied injustices and apologized for mistakes. Any citizen, company or association registered in the EU can complain to the ombudsman in the 23 official languages of the bloc. (