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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration
European Commission seminar on administrative law – opening remarks
Seminar on EU Administrative Law – Art 298
Brussels, 21 February 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning and welcome to the European Commission. I would like to thank you for joining us today to discuss a topic that is of great interest to us all - good administration and administrative law.
I would like to welcome in particular Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, who is here with us this morning. As we have this opportunity, I would like to give the floor to you in a few minutes to hear your perspectives on the EU administration.
At this point, I would also like to thank Luigi Berlinguer for the work that he and the Parliament’s staff have put into this topic. The report adopted by the European Parliament last year is proof of his sincere commitment to good administration. I welcome the visibility he has given to this important topic and I deeply regret that he is unable to be here with us today. I wish him all the best.
Allow me to open with a few words on why we have organised this event.
Good administration is a common objective of all public administrations, at European level and nationally. We owe it to our citizens to be open, efficient, independent, and above all to offer a high level of service.
Efficient public administration can make an important contribution to economic growth – this is why the Commission made public administration reform one of its top five economic priorities in the Annual Growth Survey.
Of course, there are important differences between the EU and national levels – compared to national administrations, there are relatively few areas in which the EU administration adopts measures in relation to individual citizens. But the basic case for openness and efficiency is the same.
The Lisbon Treaty created a new article - Article 298 - to enshrine this principle in the European Union's legal framework. This article states that the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the Union shall have the support of an open, efficient and independent administration.
There are different interpretations of what this article actually means. Some say that it has an internal effect only; that it concerns essentially the relations between the institution and its administration: the Commission and its services, the Council of ministers, Coreper, and the Council secretariat; MEPs and the EP services.
My view is that Article 298 is in fact broader than this. It concerns the administrative relationship of the institutions, offices, bodies and agencies – which I will call ‘the EU administration’ from now on – with the public.
While we can all agree on the importance of good administration, when we look across Europe we see that there is no single approach to delivering it. For example, some Member States have a generally applicable, cross-sector law on administrative procedures. But others do not.
At European level, all parts of the EU administration are already subject to a very extensive framework of legislation and guidelines, governing all aspects of their activities and relations with the general public. This framework includes an array of horizontal and sector-specific regulations, codes of conduct, as well of course as the Treaty provisions and the associated jurisprudence: for example areas such as European competition law and the procedures for its application; the Financial Regulation for managing and spending the European budget; trade defence instruments like anti-dumping; or the Staff Regulations for the relations of the EU with its staff.
This framework has developed over decades and been subject to extensive case law. Therefore, we must be very careful not to destroy well-established practices in sometimes economically extremely sensitive areas.
But the institutions and the bodies of the Union evolve. Therefore, we must see if and where administrative procedures and citizens' rights can and should be improved. Citizens must be able to identify their rights easily, without consulting case law or seeking legal advice.
As you know, the Commission is currently conducting an in-depth analysis into how administrative rights are protected across the EU administration. We will present our conclusions in the coming weeks.
We are also working to improve the visibility of citizens' rights. We will shortly launch a new page on our website bringing together in one place all the major elements of the EU's administrative framework.
Today's seminar is an important part of the evidence-gathering process. You all have something to bring to this discussion, so I hope you will all contribute actively.
I know that the Commission always endeavours to deliver the highest standards of administration – and I'm sure the other parts of the EU administration do too.
This is not to say that accidents don't happen or that inertia does not exist in one or the other corner of the administration. But I and the Commission do our best to respond quickly and appropriately. As I'm sure Emily O'Reilly will remind us shortly, the creation of the European Ombudsman was a major step forward in making the EU administration more responsive to citizens.
I would also emphasise that if maladministration occurs, the first answer is to correct the situation but not necessarily to rewrite the rules. Too often new rules are preached as the answer to a problem whereas it would be much more efficient to solve the problem immediately by determined action under existing rules.
Good administration is as much about culture and behaviour as about rules. I would therefore like the reflection to go further and to cover all possible ways of ensuring respect for principles of good administration.
Training, awareness and empowerment of staff are also crucial. The Commission, for example, continuously promotes its code of good administrative behaviour. It is part of the training programme for all newcomers. Citizens are entitled to submit a complaint if they feel that the code has been breached.
You can also work through the modernisation of administrative practices and tools.
For example, the Commission has over the last ten years completely overhauled its document management system. Document management is now part of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure, and includes integrated IT tools to maintain the register of administrative documents.
This is also an essential prerequisite for an effective policy of public access to documents.
I would also remind you of the Commission's ISA (interoperability solutions) programme. This programme supports the provision of digital services across all layers of public administration – including the national. This includes, for example, a machine translation tool for all the official languages of the EU, or the Commission's free-of-charge e-invoicing tool that is now being also used by Belgium. Our Belgian colleagues estimate that benefits could reach €2 million for suppliers and €7.5 million for the public on a yearly basis.
We can also work through specific legislation.
The new EU financial regulation, for example, substantially simplifies financial management at EU level. We now have clearer cost eligibility rules and extended use of lump sums in the field of grants, as well as streamlined procurement rules, more e-governance solutions and more proportionate controls.
All in all, I have the impression that the continuous improvement of sectoral and issue-specific rules and practices have been delivering good results.
This is an expert seminar. But allow me one more political remark from my own experience – not as a citizen, but as a former ambassador for a candidate country, then as Permanent Representative of a Member State and now as Vice-President in charge of interinstitutional relations and administration.
I believe that the EU administration is in general very open, efficient and independent. It strives to improve the way it serves citizens. And by this I do not just mean the Commission, but also the Council secretariat, the European Parliament services, agencies and offices.
But as I said, we need to hear about the experience and the views of Member States, the EU administration itself, academia and the Ombudsman.
First, let us establish a reference point by discussing national experience. We have invited experts from the national administrations to explain to us how citizens' rights are protected in their countries.
We can then discuss whether there are lessons that can be drawn from these national experiences for the EU administration.
In the afternoon, we will hear from representatives of the EU administration about their experience with the current regulatory framework and with the promotion of good administration principles.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I wish you a stimulating seminar and I hope there are many interesting contributions that will feed into our analysis and help us prepare the communication we will adopt in response to the excellent work in the Berlinguer report.
I now have the pleasure to pass the floor to the European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly.