Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

EU Ombudsman: Ms Emily O'Reilly

2:00 pm

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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We are now in public session. I remind members, witnesses and visitors to switch off their mobile phones. It is not sufficient to put them on silent as they can still interfere with the broadcasting equipment. I welcome viewers to our proceedings today as the meeting is being shown live on UPC and Sky channels.

As EU citizens, we all enjoy a range of rights conferred on us. The EU Ombudsman's office is an independent body that holds the EU administration to account on behalf of EU citizens. I am delighted to welcome the EU Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, who is here to discuss the activities of her office and outline her priorities for the remainder of her term in office.

We have received apologies from Deputy Joe O'Reilly and Senator Aideen Hayden.

Before beginning, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected in respect to the evidence given to the committee by absolute privilege. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of the evidence given. They are asked to respect the practice that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or entity either inside in these Houses or outside by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Ms Emily O'Reilly:

I thank the committee for the kind welcome and the opportunity to address the committee this afternoon on an issue that is already a major talking point in Brussels and which is now coming sharply into focus across every EU member state, the ongoing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, negotiations with the US. I am aware that this committee has been monitoring the ongoing negotiations for a considerable period and that it has heard from many experts and interested parties. It has clearly recognised the vital role it plays in understanding and communicating what will undeniably be a complex agreement when it emerges. The committee heard just last week from EU trade Commissioner Malmström about the current state of play of the negotiations. As an independent institution, I have no position for or against TTIP but what I would like to share today is my view of the current state of the transparency of the negotiations, and it was clear from questioning of the commissioner last week that this is a critical issue also for the committee.

Neither side of the debate around this issue disputes that its consequences will be significant for all of us and it is therefore vital that the public is made fully aware of what is involved in these talks and preferably long before the time comes for EU parliaments and the EU Parliament to vote in the event of a draft agreement being reached. This has been my focus since I launched an inquiry into this matter in July of last year. The TTIP inquiry was part of a series of strategic inquiries I opened proactively in the second half of 2014. Others covered the EU's Cohesion Fund policy, the transparency commitments of the European Medicines Agency, the independence and balance of the expert groups that advise on EU legislation and issues around the forced return of irregular migrants.

As the committee knows, TTIP is heralded as a potential game-changer, the biggest bilateral free trade agreement in history, a deal of geostrategic importance and one that may set the standard for future regional and global trade agreements. In its most ambitious form, the TTIP agreement could result in a transatlantic single market, with binding rules in a wide range of areas. Given the potential impact of TTIP on the lives of 500 million European citizens, I decided to focus my attention on how this trade deal is being negotiated, while recognising the special democratic responsibility of elected representatives at European and national levels in scrutinising the negotiations on behalf of their constituents. I should point out how active MEPs have been in seeking to assert their rights of scrutiny and I commend this committee on its increasing involvement and vigilance also in this regard.

Transparency is vital in this area, no matter what view is taken of TTIP. Transparency promotes public trust and shows that there is nothing to hide. Some TTIP champions are concerned that the debate has been marred by misinformation and that people should decide based on the facts. It stands to reason, therefore, that the public should be given the facts by giving them access to the documents that contain them. Transparency makes for informed debate and an informed debate is vital if these talks are to enjoy legitimacy. Transparency also makes good practical sense. An informed debate should lead to a better agreement in substance. As the European Commission has made more and more documents available, the TTIP debate has been increasingly focused on the substance of the agreement. This is as it should be. The more transparent the negotiations are, the more the public, stakeholders and experts will be able to provide meaningful input.

Proactive transparency makes even better practical sense. I have been calling on the Commission to make as much information and as many documents as possible available proactively. We should not wait for people to ask for them, and if we are to give access to a document, it should be done sooner rather than later. The public wants to see these documents. Citizens are increasingly aware that TTIP could produce rules that impact on them in a manner analogous to how legislation impacts on them. They are keenly aware of the impact this agreement will have. I am not, of course, calling for absolute transparency. The Commission needs to create a context in which it can negotiate effectively with the US on TTIP, so as to deliver the best possible deal for the Union and its citizens. This may mean that the Commission can legitimately keep confidential certain information and documents, at least during certain stages of the negotiations. However, exceptions to the general principle of disclosure must be properly explained and justified.

The Commission has responded well to my inquiry. A great and increasing number of fact sheets, position papers, meeting agendas and other items are now freely available online and it is clear that the new Commission has correctly intuited that without the maximum possible transparency, the struggle to complete and ratify the trade deal will be immeasurably more difficult. Transparency is not an abstract ideal; it is a simple business imperative. I have commended the efforts it has made to make these talks transparent and accessible and I acknowledge that we are moving out of an era when traditional methods of conducting international trade negotiations are characterised by confidentiality and limited public participation. Well over a year into the TTIP negotiations, for example, the Council had not publicly disclosed the negotiating mandate, or the document on the basis of which it had asked the Commission to negotiate this agreement on our behalf. It did so only after pressure from many actors, including my office, and long after it was freely available in leaked form through Google. The Commission knows better than most that the traditional approach is ill-equipped to generate the legitimacy needed in such high stakes talks. As the committee is well aware, we live in an era where public expectations of transparency are high and where social media and other information technologies do not just fuel that expectation but also either through leaks, inspired searching, or illegal hacking can break down the secrecy barriers in a manner never before experienced. It is a modern reality and a new player in trade talks that has to be accommodated.

I remain convinced that more can be done in the coming months to increase public awareness of the content and implications of TTIP, and particularly when consolidated texts of EU and US positions come close to being finalised. I have therefore urged the Commission to explore with the US what more can be done in this area. The EU and US need to examine together what can be made available. A critical point will be reached when draft consolidated texts on various parts of the agreement become available. I must say, however, at this point that while much of our focus has been correctly on the Commission, it is actually leading by example on this matter. The inquiry I carried out concerned not only transparency but also public participation in the process. Linked to this is the issue of lobbying around TTIP. Overwhelmingly, the public have called for the EU to be more transparent about its contacts with business representatives when it comes to TTIP. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that this deal is primarily for large private interests and that they have privileged access when it comes to shaping the deal. I have not seen any evidence of this but I did make a number of suggestions to the Commission to promote balanced and transparent public participation. I called for increased transparency around meetings that Commission officials hold on TTIP with business organisations, lobby groups and non-government organisations. Also of importance is the content of what interest representatives discuss with the Commission and the documents they exchange with it. These should, as far as possible, be made public.

I met Commissioner Malmström in Brussels in February to discuss the need for more transparency in the negotiations. We agreed that this is another example of how the EU is moving away from its technocratic past and toward a much more political space. That is to be welcomed, as the major decisions being made in Brussels on behalf of Europe should be the outcome of a political process, which in turn should be the outcome of the political preferences of the voters. Whether the Commission will win the hearts and minds of Europeans on TTIP is yet to be seen.

In concluding, I will briefly comment on the general issue of lobbying at the EU level. As we know, lobbying in Brussels is now a multi-million euro business, and multi-billion euro legislative issues are at stake. Lobbying is of course a vital and essential part of our democracy, our freedoms and our right as citizens to make representations to those empowered to make decisions that will affect individual lives, as well as those of businesses big and small.

As citizens, we also have the right and should have the freedom to be made aware of who is lobbying and to trust that it is done in a transparent and regulated way. A failure to allow the citizen to see how outcomes emerge is a denial of the fundamental right of participation. That is why I have also focused on issues such as whistleblowing in EU institutions, conflicts of interest and lobbying transparency in general. The Oireachtas has recently agreed a new lobbyist register, which I very much welcome. It is commendable that the Irish Parliament is showing leadership in Europe in this area. At EU level, the transparency register is not yet mandatory and is only a co-operation agreement between the Commission and Parliament. I have called on the Council of Ministers to participate also and to meet only registered lobbyists. The EU administration continues to struggle to secure the high levels of popular legitimacy it desires. It must continue to strive to achieve the gold standard of integrity, transparency and accountability. My job is to help it in that task.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank the Ombudsman. As she said, TTIP is of great concern to the committee. Commissioner Cecilia Malmström was before the committee just last week and we had a good and robust debate. We had previously published a political contribution which we sent to the European Commission last June, which is nine months ago. We received a response last week. In our contribution we outlined some of the concerns Members across the Houses have in relation to issues such as the need for it to be a mixed agreement. Many of us are concerned about the potential impact on agriculture, in particular the beef industry. However, we note that some other parts of the agriculture sector, including the dairy industry, stand to gain. With the removal of the milk quota this week, there is potential for our dairy farmers to gain greatly from TTIP.

Of great concern for many of us in the Houses is the investor dispute settlement mechanism and how we deal with it. I am interested to know whether the Ombudsman considers that there has been sufficient discussion about that in the public sphere. We have noticed the improvement in transparency around the negotiations and that is thanks not just to parliaments like ours publishing political contributions but also organisations and institutions like the Ombudsman's. She is right that there will be a difficulty for the Commission in getting people to buy into TTIP unless there is greater transparency, so we all welcome that.

In terms of lobbying, I thank the Ombudsman for her comments on how this Parliament is leading in relation to our lobbying work. It is legislation my party thought it was essential to introduce. It is one of the things we set out to achieve at the beginning of our term of office and I am glad to see it is concluded.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Ombudsman for Europe, Ms Emily O'Reilly, and Mr. Aidan O'Sullivan and congratulate her genuinely on her success in securing the position. It was a tremendous achievement. I was in Brussels when Ms O'Reilly was lobbying to be elected to one of the few really elected democratic appointments in Europe. Commissioners are appointed by Governments although MEPs are elected. From the point of view of the prestigious position Ms O'Reilly has, it was a marvellous achievement and came on the back of tremendous work as Ombudsman in Ireland. She had a great record and we miss her presence here. We are delighted that she went to another field in which she can show her merit.

I have no question that what she is doing is commendable. She is taking an interest without being pushed to do it. She sees the need to get involved in this particular transatlantic agreement. I am delighted that she is aware of the questioning here with the Commissioner. She will be very aware of the interest here, which primarily relates to agriculture and the beef trade. That is what it boils down to. We want to ensure that there is a level playing pitch. We hope the Ombudsman can ensure that when an agreement is reached, the highest standards are adhered to and that there will be fairness in relation to hormones in beef in America and the whole question of genetically modified foods. The last day we were here the Commissioner said there was agreement with Canada. I had not been aware of the details of that agreement and I am not sure how much detail was given in relation to the Canadian-EU agreement, but the point was made here that there was two-tier export from Canada. One tier relates to non-treated or hormonal cattle and the other ones are excluded. I asked what kind of supervision we had in relation to ensuring that what is exported from Canada complies with the requirements of the European Union. The Ombudsman knows the standards that are there. I come from an organic farm background. My wife and son are involved in farming and I know how many inspections take place. From an organic point of view, everything is inspected on a regular basis. One cannot spread nitrogen on the land and has drug restrictions. That is all great, but we cannot compete with the big ranchers in the USA who can produce beef more cheaply.

That is a fundamental aspect of the whole agreement and I am delighted the Ombudsman is there to keep an eye on ensuring things are done openly and transparently. It is very useful from the point of view of Ireland, the Government and the committees of the Houses. I have great confidence in the Ombudsman's ability and strength of character to ensure that the details come out in the best interests of each member state.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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There is very little I can add to Senator Leyden's remarks on Ms O'Reilly's qualifications to hold the office of EU Ombudsman. It is a great honour for Ireland and represents a recognition of the work she completed here. I wish her well and thank her for engaging with the committee.

I am minded to recall a body of work we did here at the committee in the aftermath of losing the first Lisbon referendum. We were trying to establish why the Irish people had chosen on that occasion not to support what appeared to be a treaty that was in Ireland's best interests. One of the issues that was debated ties into what the Ombudsman has spoken about today, which is the notion of a democratic deficit within the institutions of the European Union. I have always felt that there is no democratic deficit, but if there is a perception of one, it is as important as the reality. There are all sorts of means by which people are elected or appointed and there is a trace back which is based on democratic principles. The work the Ombudsman can do and is already doing to ensure greater transparency is the strongest way to remove the notion of a democratic deficit. If the output at the end of the day appears and is fair and it is clear how decisions are arrived at, it is going to take away any question marks over the people who have made those decisions. How they came to be in the position is irrelevant if they are seen to work in the best interests of all the citizens of Europe. There is a very important strand to what the Ombudsman does in terms of increasing or improving the recognition of what the institutions do and giving people a better belief that the institutions are there for them rather than for the preservation of the institutions in themselves. That is really good work.

The fact that the Ombudsman has decided to carry out the investigation on TTIP is important from an Irish perspective as Senator Leyden has said. It affects every community, whether through small businesses, multinationals, traded services and, in particular, the agriculture sector. Ireland is one of those countries where almost everything in TTIP has a relevance for almost every community. That is because we are so dependent on agriculture and foreign direct investment. It has a chance to open up the institutions to the Irish public and hopefully improve the Irish electorate's understanding of how decisions are taken and how they impact. We will have to see whether it is of benefit but we can at least consider how it will impact on the lives of those affected. That is the first point.

The second point deals with the lobbying issue. In general, lobbying is poorly understood. Perhaps there is good reason for that given the history in the State and, elsewhere across all political parties, including my own, as to how decisions were taken and whether they were appropriately connected to certain individuals.

It is really important that the European Ombudsman continue that work and to try to improve the way in which lobbying is managed and understood. She will not need me to tell her that there is a perception that where a lobbyist is involved, something corrupt is going on. She rightly says lobbying is an important part of how business is done in Europe and elsewhere and that appropriate structures need to be put in place. I was quite surprised to hear that there was not a European register. Is any country more advanced than Ireland in registering lobbyists? The system is very advanced in the United States. Perhaps the Ombudsman might give more detail of what is in place in this area in Europe and indicate when more appropriate structures might come into being to deal with the perception that lobbying is all bad.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I apologise to the Ombudsman. I should have read my documentation in advance of coming to the meeting, but I did not so. Therefore, I will ask baby questions.

Whom does the Ombudsman represent? Is it MEPs, the European Parliament or national parliaments? How does she represent 28 countries in Europe?

The Ombudsman spoke about the TTIP trade agreement between Europe and America. Did she decide to carry out the investigation to achieve transparency in the debate? In a general sense, can she pick a topic to investigate or is she asked to do so by a particular organisation or structured grouping? In other words, who can call on her services? I would have thought an ombudsman would look at the pros and cons of an argument, or the fairness of something, and decide one way or another. Does she initiate the work or is there a pathway to her office?

There are 500 million people in Europe and 28 countries with different levels of parliamentary democracy. To whom does the Ombudsman make her reports? Are they invariably sent to those who initiate action by her or are they sent to the Parliament?

I am sorry for the baby questions, but, as I said, I did not have time to read the documentation provided.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Ombudsman. I agree with her on the importance of transparency as it produces more informed debate and better agreement. She spoke about allowing access to certain documents while needing to keep others confidential. Who decides and how do they decide which documents can be shown and which are kept confidential?

The United States, as the other stakeholder, has its positioning papers. What access is there to these documents? Is there a breakdown of the interested sectors such as the environment, agriculture, transport, etc? I understand that, for example, the head of the agriculture sector would have to give agreement, as would the European Council. Will the Ombudsman tell us exactly what information can be provided? The United States has a much larger lobbying industry. Do we have any access to the meetings that have been held on the TTIP negotiations?

Do cases cross the Ombudsman's desk of citizens impacted on by European law which has not yet been transposed into national law by national parliaments? I understand there was a case in Italy in the 1990s when there were delays in transposing EU law into national law and a citizen felt it should not impact on them until such time as it had been transposed.

Photo of Derek KeatingDerek Keating (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I join the Chairman and other members of the committee in welcoming the Ombudsman. I particularly wish to be associated with the comments of Senator Terry Leyden and Deputy Timmy Dooley. I remember when Ms O'Reilly was appointed to the post and feeling a great sense of pride. I congratulate her and wish her continued success.

I have a baby question to add to those of Deputy Eric Byrne. Can the Ombudsman give us a flavour of her office, its structures, the reporting mechanisms and the number of staff she has? Will she give us a short overview of how the office works?

Ms Emily O'Reilly:

I will begin with the baby questions. I asked lots of baby questions when I set out to be elected the year before last.

The European Ombudsman works in the same way as the national Ombudsman in Ireland. A person is elected or appointed and becomes an independent officer. The Ombudsman has recommendatory powers. I am not a judge and nobody has to do what I say. In most ombudsman's offices, particularly in western Europe, the large majority of recommendations are accepted. In this country the figure is over 90%, while elsewhere in Europe it is 82% or 83%.

Access to the Ombudsman is free and the process is the same as that in Ireland. A citizen can complain to me about something related to an EU institution. For example, if a person runs a business in Ireland and has a contract with the Commission and something goes wrong in being paid or there are delays in payment, he or she must first go to the Commission. If it is not sorted out there, he or she comes to me. I look at the records, ask the parties for their comments and then make a recommendation. I will either not uphold the complaint or uphold the complaint and suggest a remedy. I can also ask the Commission to make changes in its general processes.

I was asked about how I decided on initiatives such as the TTIP investigation. The office is a small one, with some 65 officials split between Strasbourg and Brussels. When I came into it, I decided that I wanted to make it more relevant, more useful and more visible. I have the power, as does the Ombudsman in Ireland, of own initiative. In other words, I do not have to wait for a complaint to come across my desk. I can look at a case in which there is a suggestion, for example, that there may be a systemic problem. I do not just decide by myself. In the past year I have probably met 60 groups, including NGOs, business groups, parliamentarians and MEPS, and went before various committees. I drew up a list of issues on which I could make a useful intervention. I followed three criteria, one of which was that an issue should be of significant public importance. The second was that it should be doable - there would be no sense in me promising to climb a mountain if nothing was going to happen at the end of the process. The third criterion was that I could add something useful that others could not. In other words, if the Court of Auditors was working on something, or the European Court of Justice or MEPs, it would be a waste of resources for me to become involved.

I started work in October 2013 when the TTIP was already up and running as an issue. As we had received quite a few complaints related to transparency - that is how they refer to freedom of information - I decided that I would open an own initiative investigation into it. We decided we would engage in a small public consultation process and I wanted the people who would engage with me in it to define their terms. If they said they were not seeing enough or something was not transparent enough, I wanted to know what they meant. What would be a reasonable level of transparency in the context of negotiations? Once we had received our response and carried out our own investigation of Commission records, I made recommendations to the Commission in a number of areas.

I have to say that the work was helped by the change of Commission, not that this is a reflection on the last one. The new Commission had been observing how the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, TTIP negotiations were going and, to their surprise, observed the level of civil society interest in this. I think the Commissioners were quite taken aback, particularly by the level of engagement around investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS and the opposition to it. The new Commission had a simple choice to make - to remain as secretive as the last one or to open up a bit. They clearly made a decision to open up. I read back over the transcript of this committee's questioning of Commissioner Malmström last week and listened to the interview with her on "This Week". She clearly sees that transparency is vital if people want to get this across the line.

I report to the European Parliament and that is it. I do not take instructions from anybody else, nor can the Parliament tell me what to investigate. Just as I worked very well, I hope, with the Irish Parliament when I was national Ombudsman, I do my best to work very co-operatively with the European Parliament. That was how I decided to open up investigations on key areas. Whistleblowing was a big one, TTIP another. The expert groups are groups of independent, industry and other experts that are chosen primarily by the Commission to advise it on legislation. It is very important that those groupings are seen to be balanced and so on.

On the question of whether there is sufficient discussion around ISDS, the Commission itself was surprised by the huge volume of responses it got to its public consultation, it was something like 165,000. A lot of them were automated - they got something like 30,000 individual responses. I have read and listened closely to what Commissioner Malmström has said to that and I think she is trying to deconstruct the model that is used globally and create an EU-friendly model. There has been a lot of disquiet about the way in which judges in international ISDS arbitration have a revolving door, in that one minute they are judges and the next they are corporate lawyers. It is not always transparent as to how they are appointed and so on. Commissioner Malmström is struggling between trying to balance out what might be perceived as the need for this sort of mechanism to calm the fears of potential investors, against the very palpable concern about how these disputes are litigated.

On agriculture, I understand how big an issue this is, particularly for this country and presumably also for other EU member states for whom agriculture is very important. One of the big issues around this discussion is the dropping of standards. Commissioner Malmström and her US counterpart have been at pains to say this is not in fact the case, and that it is about making regulation easier and better, not dropping standards such as those Senator Leyden discussed. This is where committees such as this one and individual representatives such as the Deputies and Senators come into play. While I can do my bit to try to get the records out, public representatives can read and interpret them and mediate them to their constituents. There will be massive spin on both sides regarding this but my piece is simply to make as sure as I can that people have sufficient records and documentation. They are easily accessible now on the Commission website and the Commission is making strenuous efforts to make them as user-friendly as possible.

Somebody mentioned the US documents and this is the tricky part of the puzzle. Commissioner Malmström can with great authority and excellent bona fides say that she will do her bit to make things as transparent as possible. She sees it as a business imperative anyway and is not just doing it for the sake of the abstract good of transparency. The US has a different view and it is entirely legitimate for them to have this. There are two stakeholder groups comprising consumer groups and other bodies, one in the US and one in the EU. They get access to what is called a reading room - they can go in, look at documents that ordinary citizens could not see and take notes. However it is never quite clear to me what exactly they are supposed to do with that information afterwards because they cannot make it public. I understand the US is creating some availability through its embassies for elected representatives to see these documents, although I am not completely clear on this.

I have made the point that the critical moment will be when the consolidated texts come. At present the EU is putting forward its position, as is the US, on things like agriculture, pharmaceuticals, financial services and so on. When some sort of draft agreement hovers into view and there is a consolidated text, the issue of whether that will be made public or made available to public representatives will arise. The view of the US is slightly more hard line than that of the EU and, in the past, the EU has made assurances that it will not release any documents from the US if the US says not to. What I say is that once a document becomes an EU document, it is subject to the transparency law of the EU, which is Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001, the equivalent of our Freedom of Information Act. It is not enough for the US to say no - it has to give a legitimate reason or rationale as to why it is saying no and then a decision has to be taken.

For the moment, there is a lot available on the Commission website - any number of fact sheets and position papers. What happens when it gets to more critical points, when the two sides come closer together, is what concerns me. Most people will not be interested in reading a lot of this stuff because it is complicated and that is why it is important that committees such as this one, individual Deputies, civil society and business groupings who have the capacity and interest to read the documents do so and mediate them to them people. It is unclear whether the individual parliaments are going to vote on this as well.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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Yes, they are going to - all 28 have to ratify.

Ms Emily O'Reilly:

Every single parliament is going to be reflecting different issues. Here, agriculture could be a big thing, workers' standards, all sorts of things. The more information is got out there now as opposed to it all coming in a big bang, the better.

Regarding lobbying in the US and EU, I took part in a joint committee hearing about lobbying at the European Parliament last week. There was a presentation given by a Trinity College Dublin professor who has done a lot of empirical research on lobbying. He graded the EU countries and institutions on lobbying and we fell in the middle grade. This would be before the transparency register was set up. Depending on what happens with that, we could move into a higher register. As Deputy Byrne said, different countries have different cultures and views of these things. In some countries they are known as the anti-corruption register while other countries do not have them at all. We do have them and this Commission has taken a much harder line on people even voluntarily signing up for it. It is made much easier if people do so.

There is a further incentive in that Commissioners and their cabinetsonly meet with people who are on the transparency register. The issue, again, is how these matters are enforced and whether the information available is accurate. The United States is very evolved in terms of its lobbying and is at a very high level in this regard. However, there is also the other issue in that country of political funding and all of that, which drives a lot of the political play there.

In regard to how one obtains the documents, it would probably be done online. It might be worth making contact with the US Embassy here to see what access can be given within this State to US documents.

On the transposition of EU law, that is probably more an issue for the European Parliament's Committee on Petitions, which deals with what is happening in member states. My remit relates to the EU institutions and the European Court of Justice.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank the Ombudsman. We have a letter from Mr. Maroš Šefovi, Vice President of the European Commission, in which he points out that while the Commission considered the Peru and Colombia agreements to be EU-only agreements, the Council designated them as mixed agreements. Mr. Šefovi further notes that it is likely the Council will also consider the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, as a mixed agreement. That is what he is telling national parliaments and we all hope it will be the case.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I have a question on TTIP and transparency. Against a background of extensive regulation and monitoring of those regulations, there is a desire to do away with that and have a more standard form. Taking the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland as an example, in order to get a plant up and running, it is necessary to go through various very sophisticated preparatory procedures with the American Food and Drug Administration, FDA. A friend of mine who runs such a plant, which I will not name, tells me there is more dread of inspections by the Irish Medicines Board, IMB, than by the FDA. One assumes, then, that the IMB has a higher level of standards applying to the production of drugs compared with the FDA. Ms O'Reilly referred to the dropping of standards. How do we monitor what is going on in the negotiations, which seem to have led to a situation where instead of the lowering of standards to make it easier to trade, we have instead achieved the implementation of the highest possible standard? Is there a role for Oireachtas committees to examine these matters as part of their EU scrutiny remit? Is there a mechanism whereby one might identify which standard will be adopted in pharmaceutical production, for instance?

Ms Emily O'Reilly:

Theoretically, there should be such a mechanism. I take the Deputy's point about the Irish Medicines Board and the varying standards. Of course, there is also the European Medicines Agency, which licenses drugs that are being marketed generally in Europe. The pharmaceuticals issue is one of the big-ticket items in the negotiations on the TTIP and there is understandable concern everywhere about what will emerge at the end. It is important for people who take an interest in these matters to monitor what the Commission is producing in order to secure access from the US to its documents and records. There are several very active civil society groups, very often peopled by scientists and industry players - people who know, one hopes, what they are talking about - which are monitoring these issues very carefully.

Somebody made the point recently that despite all the material on the Commission's website, very few people are reading it. In a way it does not matter how many people read it; it is more a question of ensuring the right people read it. Therefore, it is very important that if this committee, for example, is taking an interest in this matter, that members read the material or get people they know who are experts in this area to read and explain it, as most of us would require it to be explained, and then feed that into their deliberations. It is very important that this starts to happen now because by the time it gets to the end game, it will be too late. A lot of the material is very complicated and it also depends on who is mediating what is there. There could, for instance, be a section of a pharmaceutical joint protocol which states that X, Y and Z are agreed. However, one side might say, "This is great, it means such and such", while the other might say, "No, actually it means something else". Nothing is ever simple but what is important is not the numbers of people looking at this but that there is sufficient information out there for the people who are informed to be able to advise people like the committee members.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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On behalf of the committee, I thank the Ombudsman for attending and answering our questions so thoroughly. Perhaps there will be a future opportunity for her to come before us to discuss other issues.

Ms Emily O'Reilly:

I hope so. I thank members for their interest and wish them a happy Easter. If they ever need to consult my office, all they need do is call.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Meath East, Labour)
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I thank Ms O'Reilly. I very much enjoyed my meeting with her some months back. I propose that we suspend briefly before resuming to discuss matters of private business.

Sitting suspended at 2.55 p.m. and resumed in private session at 3 p.m.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.10 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Thursday, 16 April 2015.