Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
Committee on Public Petitions
Work of the European Ombudsman during Covid-19: Discussion
I welcome everybody to our public virtual meeting using Microsoft Teams. I welcome Leo Bollins and Margaret O'Donnell from the secretariat. I thank the Business Committee for agreeing to this public meeting of the Committee on Public Petitions during the level 5 restrictions. We have made every effort to mitigate the risk of the new variants of Covid-19 to members, witnesses and staff.
The first part of our meeting with the European Ombudsman is in public session. At the conclusion of the public session, we will suspend the meeting until 12 noon, at which time we will resume in virtual private session. Apologies have been received from Senator Warfield.
I will read some formal notices. Members, witnesses and staff are requested to use the wipes and hand sanitiser provided to clean seats and desks that are shared so as to supplement regular sanitation. This will help to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spreading among the parliamentary community.
I remind members of the constitutional requirements that they must be physically present within the confines of the places in which Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House and-or the Convention Centre Dublin, to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where he or she is not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. I ask that members make the secretariat aware of whether they are within the precincts of Leinster House or the Convention Centre Dublin.
I wish to explain to the witnesses some limitations to parliamentary privilege and the practice of the Houses as regards reference they may make to other persons in their evidence. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected, pursuant to both the Constitution and statute, by absolute privilege. However, the witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present. Witnesses may think it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if statements are potentially defamatory in regard to an identifiable person or entity, witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction.
On behalf of the committee, I extend a warm welcome to Ms Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, who is joining us from Strasbourg. She is joined by her head of cabinet, Mr. Aidan O'Sullivan, who is in Brussels. Ms O'Reilly is no stranger to the committee. In fact, on 20 July 2011, when she was the State Ombudsman, serving a population of 4.6 million people, she was the first witness to address the first Committee on Public Petitions. Here we are, ten years later, and she has been twice elected as European Ombudsman, serving a population of 448 million people. Whether we are dealing with a large or a small population or working at local, regional, state or European Union level, we are all facing the same pandemic of Covid-19 and the new devastating variants.
The committee would like to hear about the European Ombudsman's findings on how EU institutions have responded to the Covid-19 crisis, the transparency of the information provided by the institutions and how they have communicated with the public. The committee is aware that she has been monitoring EU institutions such as the European Council and the European Commission and agencies such as the European Medicines Agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Investment Bank in terms of how they have responded to the pandemic. The committee would like to discuss how greater transparency could be achieved to maintain the trust of the public. As EU member states continue to roll out Covid-19 vaccines, the committee looks forward to engaging with Ms O'Reilly on these initiatives and other works carried out by the European Ombudsman on pandemic-related matters.
I invite Ms O'Reilly to make her opening statement. She is welcome to the committee.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
I thank the Chairman for his warm welcome. I thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss my work during and in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. Members do not need me to tell them how challenging this past year has been for everyone. Those challenges are set to continue for much of 2021 despite the miracle arrival of vaccines developed and authorised with unprecedented speed. As national politicians, members have had the unenviable task of monitoring life-or-death decisions made by the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, with no comparable situation in recent memory to guide them. The balancing of risks and needs has had to be done with little time fully to reflect on outcomes and consequences both short and long term. I wish members well as they continue that arduous task while also striving to keep themselves and their families safe.
Covid-19 continues to have devastating consequences across Europe and the world and continues to monopolise the attention of governments and public administrations, as well as the societies they serve. Shortly after the World Health Organization, WHO, declared Europe to be the epicentre of the pandemic, it was obvious that this virus, which has no respect for borders, would be a major challenge for the EU. For my office, as the watchdog of the EU administration, it was clear that a transnational crisis of this scale would severely test the capacity of the EU institutions, and I began to monitor their response early on, using my powers of own-initiative investigation. In addition, I also began to receive complaints related to the pandemic and to the EU’s response to it.
In April last year, I wrote to the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council with proposals on how to maintain high transparency standards during the crisis, and especially in the context of emergency or accelerated decision-making procedures and derogations from standard rules on meetings.
I made the point that during such a major crisis it is even more important that public authorities are open about how they operate and take decisions. Transparency helps to ensure public trust in, and reinforces the legitimacy of, decision-making processes.
I am sure members are all acutely aware of how during this terrifying time people will constantly seek assurance about what the Government is doing and whether they are being given all the facts necessary to make decisions about their lives and the lives of their families. Any sign that facts are being hidden, provokes not just distrust but also increased mental stress.
I received encouraging replies from both institutions that they would indeed prioritise transparency. However, as the crisis evolved, I considered it important to look in greater detail at some more specific aspects of the EU response and the roles of particular institutions and agencies. In July, I launched a series of inquiries and initiatives to this end. One of those concerned the work carried out by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, in gathering and assessing data linked to the pandemic. As members are likely aware, the ECDC was set up in 2004 in the aftermath of the SARS outbreaks, essentially to help to co-ordinate the EU response to a future and more serious epidemic. Approximately 30 people in Europe were infected by SARS, a tiny number compared to Covid-19, which may have led to a certain complacency in relation to the necessary powers to be granted to this new agency. Making it work was not helped, of course, by the fact that the member states retain power over health policy and not the EU. While the ECDC was gifted a flattering title and lofty ambition, it was not given complementary powers, emerging rather as a weak agency with little independence of action. It can request health and other data from the member states, but there is no legal obligation on them to supply it.
My inquiry highlighted shortcomings in how the data is communicated to and gathered by the ECDC, both in terms of timing and completeness, and how the centre presents this information to the outside world. I raised issues, for example, vis-a-vis changing advice on the wearing of face masks and why certain surveys of member state capacity to deal with the crisis were published and others were not. I made a series of suggestions aimed at promoting greater transparency and better means to enable greater scrutiny of the data and assessments compiled by the ECDC. Ultimately, however, if the EU wants an agency that can live up to the title of pan-European disease prevention and control, EU legislators will need to reflect on the centre's founding mandate. Without specific new powers to ensure the completeness and quality of the data it receives from national authorities, it cannot effectively fulfil this role. It remains to be seen how the proposal from the Commission in this regard will develop.
The second inquiry I opened concerned the Council of the European Union and the transparency of its decision-making. My inquiry assessed the decision by the Council to derogate temporarily from its rules of procedure during the crisis and the implications this has had for its decision-making process and the transparency of that process. As members may also be aware, the Council shifted to meeting by videoconference and to taking all decisions by written procedure. My inquiry found that there was a considerable lack of transparency in how the Council made this fundamental shift to its way of operating. While the meetings of preparatory bodies in the Council are now more accessible to the public, there are still areas in which the Council should improve and I concluded this inquiry just last week with some suggestions.
In addition to those inquiries, I also engaged with the European Medicines Agency, EMA, the Commission and the European Investment Bank, EIB, about their roles. I also received a number of complaints related to the transparency of the negotiations for the vaccine procurement scheme, as well as public access to the so-called advance purchase agreements - the contracts that have been subject of so much debate, as member are well aware. While my inquiries into the requests for public access to the contracts were under way in the form of freedom of information requests, the Commission decided to publish most of these contracts. As is often the case, it belatedly realised that transparency was not just in the public interest, but in its own interest.
Another recent inquiry concerned a request that the Commission disclose details about the negotiating team in charge of the vaccine contracts. Given the blame game around vaccine procurement and roll-out, I consider that it is in the Commission's interest to provide greater transparency about the negotiations, including this team, since it is made up predominantly of representatives of national authorities in the member states. EU citizens need to know the extent to which their governments are involved in the contract deals and that the work is not solely carried out by the Commission.
I hope that my opening statement has provided members with some insight into my work in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. In the case of Covid-19, it is clear that there is a negative perception of how the EU has responded to the crisis to date. While the institutions were undoubtedly unprepared for dealing with a health crisis on this scale, it is possibly too easy to blame Brussels without acknowledging that often the real decision-makers reside in the national capitals and not in the so-called Brussels bubble. The crisis has cast a spotlight on decision-making at EU level and may, in time, influence the future direction of the Union itself as the debate over what should best be done at national level, and what could better be done at Union level, continues with the Covid-19 backdrop as a guide. As I noted earlier, the EU has no real competence in the area of health policy, which made it very difficult for the institutions to play any role in co-ordinating a response, something my inquiry into the ECDC laid bare.
The joint procurement scheme for vaccines was not without flaws, as we know. However, it was a first of its kind, with the Commission constrained by the demands of member states concerning which vaccines they wanted and at what price. The negotiating team was clearly also a joint effort, with national administrations having been active members. I expect there to be more twists and turns before we finally emerge from this crisis and, as ombudsman, I will likely deal with more complaints. However, my overriding message to the institutions will remain that conducting their tasks in as transparent a manner as possible is both in the public interest and, as the Commission found out vis-a-vis the vaccine contracts, also very much in its interests.
I look forward to our discussion. Thank you all for listening. Go raibh maith agaibh.
I thank Ms O'Reilly. I agree that there will be many more twists and turns before this awful pandemic is finished. We have heard terrible stories from all over Europe. I thank her for her contribution. Before I allow members in, I would like to ask a couple of questions.
I would welcome Ms O'Reilly's views on the importance of the relationship in ensuring effective collaboration between Ireland and the EU on the EU issues that matter to them most. This is important in the fight against Covid-19, but it is equally important in other areas of public concern such as the Mercosur trade deal talks, which affect Ireland. How could this committee and her office could work together for the mutual benefit of the people of Ireland and the EU?
Since the pandemic struck, Ms O'Reilly has examined various aspects of the EU response, including the initial assessment of the threat of Covid to public health. She has also, to some extent, looked at the EU's negotiations with pharma companies and called for more transparency on both counts. I am interested in hearing about here findings in regard to the ECDC's initial assessment of the threat of Covid to public health. Did the fact that the EU institutions have little power in respect of health matters make the pandemic worse in the Europe and did the lack of transparency during the early days of the pandemic, especially in the Council, create problems for the EU?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
The links between the EU and Ireland are incredibly important and they have always been very good. We saw that during the Brexit negotiations. It was interesting to note last week when there was some talk of the EU adopting a more protectionist attitude in regard to the export of vaccines and so on that Ireland was to the fore in warning against that because there have been some short-term benefits.
Ireland was fairly quick to see the medium-term and long-term difficulties that might pose. As well as this, since the UK left the EU, although Ireland and the UK would have always partnered and been allies on many issues of mutual importance in the EU, there is the issue of new alliances emerging. Ireland is part of that. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a sense that Ireland was cleaving more towards some of the Nordic countries, such as Denmark, and the Netherlands and so on. It will be a while, however, before those alliances form themselves in a stronger way.
I cannot stress enough the importance of engagement in Dublin, the capital, with Government and the Oireachtas in the room members are in now. People think the EU happens in Brussels. It does not; it happens in all the member states. Committees such as this and other relevant committees have a huge role to play in bridging that gap between the two settings. I know that sounds almost like a cliché but I really cannot emphasise it enough. The messaging from the EU needs to happen in the member states.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, was where the EU came up against its own internal contradictions, in a sense, in that it was an EU solution to an EU problem. On one hand, the member states did not want to concede any of their competence with regard to health. The ECDC, therefore, was given few powers and little independence of action. Therefore, although it was given a title that mimicked that of the centre in the US and other places, it certainly did not have the capacity to do what it was intended to do. The pandemic certainly exposed that.
The issue now is for the EU if it wants to have a powerful agency in future pandemics, or even in the current one, which does not seem to be going away any time soon. If it really and truly wants an agency with power and with the capacity to co-ordinate all the responses from the members states, then it must have a big discussion and debate with the member states to see whether more power should be ceded to it. It is a sort of sleight of hand. When most citizens hear of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, they think that is exactly what it does. It actually does not, however. In a way, it is a sort of post box for information that may or may not come, or may not come at the right time, for member states, which it puts together and sends it out, usually belatedly.
I will finish on this. Quite early on in the pandemic, in January and February when the first cases started emerging in European countries, particularly France, Germany and Italy, the ECDC suddenly almost had an existential crisis. Its instinct was to say that everything will be fine and we can cope with this. Within a few weeks it was forced to say that it could not. The EU, and member states in particular, had to learn from that and really ask what they wanted. Did they want to hold on tightly to their powers with regard to health policy or cede them for the greater good?
Ms O'Reilly is very welcome. I thank her for attending. It is much appreciated. The European Ombudsman has been very busy in the past 12 months looking into the EU's response to Covid-19. I will try to focus on some of the investigations that are still ongoing because I know some have concluded. Perhaps I could get some clarification. An investigation into the European Medicines Agency, EMA, in 2019 has been concluded and published. Is it correct that the European Ombudsman is still looking into aspects of the EMA's work today, however?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
Yes. We continue to monitor the EMA. The investigation we concluded in 2019 concerned the way in which it held pre-planning meetings, with which we in Ireland are all familiar, that can be held between developers and local authorities on possible developments they want to do. Equally, the EMA had pre-regulatory decision meetings with pharmaceutical companies, which would say they were thinking of looking for authorisation on certain things. They asked what the EMA thought and there would be a discussion. There were, therefore, concerns around that so we looked at it. Basically, we made recommendations to the EMA, which it accepted. This meant the people who were involved with the pre-authorisation meetings were not really the ones ultimately making decisions on that.
We knew at the beginning that the EMA was going to be the focus of much attention because of the power it has. The member states, of course, form the board of the EMA and are the ones that ultimately decide or agree on any recommendation it makes regarding the authorisation of vaccines. We were, therefore, looking very carefully at its transparency in that regard. There is still much anti-vaccination opinion. It is not even people who are anti-vaccination ideologically but those who are genuinely nervous about vaccines. We knew, therefore, that everything the EMA did had to be really open and transparent. So far, we have been happy with the response. It has spoken about fast-tracking certain procedures into the future. Sometimes when people hear the term "fast-track", they think about skimping on important bits of the process. I am sure that is not what the EMA is thinking of. It is an agency which, from my experience, takes its responsibilities incredibly seriously. Nonetheless, we will be keeping an eye on that to see its intent and how things are panning out.
The European Ombudsman wanted the Commission to publish the contracts, which it would not do initially but since has. That recommendation or investigation that was under way in Ms O'Reilly's office has, therefore, concluded, although it continues to look into the procedures that were adopted in improving the vaccines.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
One of the access requests we received was about a team that deals with these vaccine contracts, which is made up of members of the Commission and members from seven member states, not including Ireland. That is not particularly relevant but I want to make it clear that Ireland is not involved. That is the core team but then it would go back to all the member states.
A request was received from an MEP seeking the names of the civil servants from the member states on that committee. We agreed with the EMA that there were data protection issues and there was no overriding public interest in knowing who precisely the civil servants were. The Commission refused to actually publish the names of the member states that were doing this, which to my mind was quite extraordinary. Its reasoning was that if people knew, for instance, that Italy was one of those member states then somebody would be able to join the dots and locate the civil servant, which to my mind, although I did not say this at the time, was ridiculous, really. When things like that happen, one gets a little bit frustrated; let me put it that way. Some people, although not everybody, have a tendency to think that if the Commission is hiding that, what else is it hiding? With something as simple as that, therefore, the heavens were not going to fall if people knew who the member states were. Most people know who they are anyway.
We continue to get access to documents requests regarding the EMA. We have had a very long relationship with it going back even before my time. Certainly, it is a priority of my office to keep an eye on that because so many people are keeping an eye on the EMA and must put their trust in it with regard to vaccines and their authorisation.
Regarding the procurement process, I believe Ms O'Reilly spoke about individual member states squabbling about things like price, indemnity and choice of vaccine. Is it the view of Ms O'Reilly's office's that this led to a delay in the European Union procuring the vaccines that were needed and then in their roll-out?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
It is not something we have specifically looked into, although we may. I believe there will and must be investigations in many sectors in every member state. I am sure in Ireland this will also occur as to how things happened. At the moment, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say things are happening at a frantic pace. I know it has been stated, reported and commented on that one of the reasons for the slowness in the vaccine roll-out in the EU was because of this haggling over pricing, for one thing, and that the EU and the Commission, perhaps, took a traditional conservative approach, which in times of crisis is probably a good thing. People will demand that they get good prices and so on.
The other approach was to just throw everything at it and say we are in an emergency with this crisis; this is a war. One might contrast the EU's response with those of the UK and US, which developed a warlike mentality.
This was evident even in the language that was used. Operation Warp Speed was former President Trump's description of throwing money at the vaccine development and roll out. We have seen what happened in the UK as well. One could also say that there was a huge political imperative for both of those countries to do it, given the huge and appalling number of deaths that had happened on those Governments' watch. Nonetheless, while I have not investigated this and do not have facts to hand that I can stand over, there does appear to have been a classically bureaucratic, conservative approach taken by the EU. That said, we must also remember that there are 27 member states involved. Austria, for example, now wants more of the available vaccines but the other member states have said that it did not do its homework at the beginning, did not order enough doses and was a little bit frugal. The EU also has to consider poorer countries and it has been to the fore, beyond anything that the UK or US has done, in giving vaccines to other countries. The figures in that regard are quite impressive.
When this calms down, we will be able to make definitive judgments about this but we must all recognise that this was an unprecedented situation. There was no play book for this. Obviously mistakes were made but good things have been done as well.
Does Ms O'Reilly foresee her office looking into the approval process for AstraZeneca in particular and the differences between individual member states and the EMA in terms of how they approved that vaccine? Does she see herself looking into the decision-making process around enforcing the export protocol which is still being discussed?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
Obviously we may get complaints or freedom of information requests for access to documents relating to that which we will deal with but we would not look at what member states did unless there was EU administration involvement. In the event that we did decide to look at that - although this is not something I am contemplating at the moment - it would have to meet the three criteria for initiating any investigation. One is that it is in the public interest and clearly, something like that would fit into that category; two, that it is doable, that we would get a result and that we would not be over-promising; and three, that we are not doubling up on investigations that are being done elsewhere. If a committee of parliament, for example, or some other agency was doing an investigation that was likely to yield as good as, or better, an outcome as us, then we would not do it. As I said already, the pace of events is significant. We continue to look at the EMA and it is possible that in time we will look at the procurement process, particularly if complaints come in. However, I must emphasise that we would not be looking at member state actions but at the actions of the EMA.
I welcome Ms O'Reilly to this meeting. I listened very attentively to her opening remarks and noted with interest her contention that transparency helps to ensure public trust and reinforces the legitimacy of decision-making processes and that any sign of facts being hidden provokes not just distrust but also increased mental stress and mental health issues. She said that EU citizens need to know the extent to which their own governments were involved in the contracts and so on. She mentioned that there are lots of people out there who are very sceptical about the vaccines and that it is important to get those people on board. I was extremely impressed by the honesty of Ms O'Reilly's report and very interested to hear that the ombudsman's office does not have any real competence in the area of EU health policy, which strikes me as strange. If the EU is supposed to work for the good of all of its members, that should include their financial, mental and physical good.
Deputy Murphy referred to the EMA and possible investigations by the ombudsman's office. Let us say the ombudsman conducts an investigation and issues a final report, including recommendations. Have such reports or recommendations ever been challenged by any EU member state? Has anybody ever questioned the recommendations of the European Ombudsman's office? Has anyone ever asked whether it would be prudent to go that way or suggested that her office should stay away from an issue because of possible implications by way of court cases and so forth? Does the ombudsman ever feel compromised when she issues her reports? She spoke earlier about investigations that her office has conducted pretty rapidly, considering Covid has only been with us for 12 to 18 months. Has she ever been challenged in terms of the EU not doing something on foot of her findings or recommendations or choosing to ignore them?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
Being an ombudsman in the European context is more challenging than being one in the member state context. When I was the Irish Ombudsman I could rely on across-the-board parliamentary and Government support for what I did and there was a very high acceptance of my recommendations. It is a little more challenging at the European level because of different cultural views of issues around administration, data protection, freedom of information and so on. In addition, one important country does not have a national ombudsman, namely, Germany. It has a petitions committee but does not have an ombudsman so the Germans do not quite understand or get the role of the ombudsman. There have been issues, particularly in relation to the work I have done on transparency at European Council and EU ministerial level. There has been push back with some people saying that my office is going beyond its mandate and so on. When I hear that, it suggests to me that I am doing my job but people are not too thrilled about the fact that I am doing it.
Regarding the ECDC report, part of my rationale for doing that was to make my office as useful as possible during the pandemic. By highlighting the lack of health competence and the fact that it is member states who decide on their health policies and not the EU, we showed how that became a huge problem during the pandemic. Italy was in a terrible state at the beginning and there were moves by certain countries to protect their own equipment and supplies until the Commission basically got everyone to calm down and start sharing. It was, in a way, the EU confronting its own contradictions and the ongoing debate around a more united Europe versus a Europe in which member states have more control. The ECDC was created precisely to assist with what started to befall us last year but it did not and could not assist because the member states did not have to, and therefore did not, play ball. For example, in the years leading up to the pandemic the ECDC would have carried out surveys on Ireland's ICU capacity, the way Spain looks after elderly people in care, what levels of PPE the Netherlands has in stock and so forth. The responses the ECDC got were very piecemeal and the member states did not want them to be published. Even when member states gave information to the ECDC, they did not want that information published because they did not want to appear in a league table showing, for example, that Ireland is fantastic in relation to ICU capacity, Denmark is a disaster, Germany is in the middle and so on. Therefore, the capacity of the ECDC to war game, to ask what would happen if a pandemic were to happen, how prepared we are and who needs what was compromised. The ECDC could not war game and therefore, when the pandemic reached our shores, there was no plan. There was chaos. People have learned an awful lot over the last 12 months, obviously, but the only way chaos is going to be prevented in future is if member states decide that the EU should have a health competence and cede more of their control over public health.
That is a political issue. It is for the member states to decide among themselves but what my investigation did was point out what happens when one creates a body of the kind in question. It does not seem appropriate, perhaps, to call it a pretend agency but in a way it is. First one hears about the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and then about the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC. One believes the ECDC must have the same powers as its counterpart but it does not. The point of my investigation was to feed into the debate that has to take place. It has already started. Members will have heard the Commission talking about a health union and so on. It was to assist in that debate.
How can the Committee on Public Petitions support Ms O'Reilly more, and vice versa, such that we could have a memorandum of understanding on supporting each other? Having been a member of the petitions committee, I am aware of its potential. There is obviously great potential but there is also potential to work with our European counterparts and, more importantly, Ms O'Reilly, in addition to our Ombudsman in Ireland. That is one part of my question.
My other question concerns the only point that really worries me. I am asking for Ms O'Reilly's opinion more than anything else. Where the final recommendations of an Ombudsman are received by our petitions committee, would Ms O'Reilly find it prudent if we were to challenge them and say that, as members of a petitions committee, we did not agree with the decision? Would that be a good idea? Would it be outside the remit? I want to try to touch all bases here. I would like Ms O'Reilly's opinion on the matter because we want this committee to work properly and do not want to be setting off on the wrong foot.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
Absolutely. I well remember the history of the petitions committee because there was not a petitions committee when I dealt with a quite famous case, the lost at sea case, several years ago. It was the first time that a recommendation had been rejected so I decided to submit a special report to the Parliament. The then Government decided not even to have a committee discuss it. Anyway, the case became politicised, not because of anything my office had done but because we had, unusually, looked at the actions of a Minister in regard to the development of the scheme. Naturally, that gave rise to political sensitivities, which had an impact. Then the committee that investigated or considered the report split on party lines, which was a pity because I believe an Ombudsman's report should be dealt with in an impartial way insofar as that is possible in a political community like the Oireachtas. Arising out of that, the petitions committee was created. Deputy Charles Flanagan was the Minister who was at the first session, I believe, and he said that, to the greatest extent possible, the committee would not split along party lines on Ombudsman reports. That does not mean one cannot reject them; of course they can be rejected. If an Ombudsman makes a recommendation, it does not mean it is necessarily going to be accepted, but it is critical that it be evaluated impartially and that the way the Ombudsman — currently Mr. Peter Tyndall — goes about his work also be evaluated impartially and independently.
I welcome what the Deputy said about greater liaison between my office and the Petitions Committee, which is the committee to which I report within the European Parliament. I said earlier but cannot emphasise enough how important it is that the work of the EU and communication thereon take place not in Brussels but exactly where the members are all now. That is so important. A petitions committee has great potential to achieve that. Arguably, there are foreign affairs and European affairs committees and so on but this committee is the link to the people, just as my office is, and that is where our complementary roles lie.
I welcome Ms O'Reilly back and thank her for her opening remarks. Many questions on the EMA have already been asked so I will not refer to it. On Ms O'Reilly's inquiry into the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, I was taken with her reference to the gathering and assessing of data linked to the pandemic. She stated issues arose over the changing advice on face coverings. We saw this here at home when we changed tack on that front, arguably ahead of many of our European colleagues. Ms O'Reilly mentioned there was a survey of the capacity of a number of member states to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Having regard to that and the face coverings issue, she might elaborate a little more on the inquiry. Has it concluded completely? Are there still elements being dealt with? I am not prying but just wondering whether Ms O'Reilly could elaborate a little more.
I have a question that is similar to those of Deputy Buckley on Ms O'Reilly's office's engagement with us. How many complaints or inquiries does she deal with annually? How many staff are in her office? If I could ask Ms O'Reilly those questions-----
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
-----go in, get the information and publish it. That is the critical thing.
On face masks, I was always fascinated by the face masks issue because, to me, it seemed blindingly obvious that we should be wearing them. I looked at my Amazon bill for last year, which was distressingly large, to see when I first bought face masks. I first ordered them on 28 February, which was before we were advised to do so. I am not saying I am a genius and prescient but, to me, as a reasonably intelligent human being, it seemed obvious that we should have been wearing face masks. I was always puzzled as to the approach. At the beginning, NPHET, the WHO and the ECDC were almost counter-indicating their use, suggesting they do more harm than good. The ECDC was effectively saying "No" at a certain point and three weeks later it was saying "Yes", and now we are all wearing masks. I am in Strasbourg, where they are worn on the street. One wears them all the time. People talk about the science. The science on the virus was really simple: it is spread by aerosol, it is in the air, one breathes it in and gets the disease, and what happens, happens. Therefore, face masks were obvious. When the ECDC changed its advice it did not say why, and that is why we made the recommendation that, in future, it explain to people why it is changing advice on certain matters. I tune in to Irish media regularly and I quite frequently hear the ECDC being referred to. People understandably and rightly trust it but to really earn that trust, the advice it is giving and the decisions it is making have to be justified.
On the question on my office, it has approximately 70 staff. It is a tiny office. We get roughly 2,000 complaints every year. Many of them are not within our mandate but within that of the relevant member state's public administration so we would advise people accordingly. We open approximately 350 to 400 inquiries each year.
Some of those follow complaints and others are own-initiative systemic investigations. A recent one we carried out related to the ECDC.
Cúirim fáilte roimh an ombudsman. In November, the ombudsman published a report on the procurement of faulty face masks and the lack of co-ordination and transparency in regard to their supply and the contract. Was there a reply from the European Union?
It may not necessarily have been Ms O'Reilly and I may stand corrected on the issue. I agree with her regarding face masks. There has been a rolling change of position in respect of them. Did she make the ECDC aware of her personal view on face masks at the time?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
I made a point of instructing my investigators who were dealing with the ECDC to ask it specifically about that. There is a sort of a newsfeed on the ECDC website and in the part relating to March and April of last year, one can see quite clearly what might be called the contradictory advice on that and the speed at which it changed. I suspect that part of the reason the WHO, the ECDC and NPHET at the time were not suggesting that people should wear face masks and, in fact were discouraging them, related to the fear that there would be huge demand and that the supply that was necessary for medical and healthcare workers would be diminished. The ECDC in its response, if I recall correctly, almost agreed with the point that if the authorities had started telling everyone to wear face masks, there would have been a run on them. The Senator might recall that there was a severe lack of them and the EU, and I think Ireland as well, had to seek airlifts of personal protective equipment, PPE, from China.
The issue is interesting in an almost philosophical way. If I knew that face masks were a good idea, surely the WHO and the ECDC did too. Similar to the point I made earlier when talking about politicians and their role in finding that balance of risk, was it riskier to tell everyone to get face masks or to do it the other way? All these matters will be analysed after the fact.
On the Senator's first question, I do not recall that particular issue, although it may just be something that has not yet come across my desk. I will follow up on it for him.
That is fine. I thank Ms O'Reilly for her excellent presentation and her ongoing work. When she was based in Ireland, I dealt with her office on a number of occasions and her staff were fantastic. I thank her for her communication with me, as a parliamentarian. She might comment on the impact of the virus on the work of the European Union and on its future. She spoke about the European Union not having a competency in health policy and the area of transparency. How does she foresee the European Union moving forward in its work?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
As the Senator will be aware, a large conference on the future of Europe is about to kick off. It will be interesting to see how that goes because the first big argument was over who should chair it. Instead of having one chairperson, it will now have three presidents, as well as deputy presidents and further layers – gang loads of them - involved. There are also different views as to what outcomes people can expect. Ireland was, if I recall correctly, one of 12 member states that wrote a letter last week warning not to raise expectations and saying that nothing should come out of this that will involve treaty change, whether major or minor, although obviously that is a political issue.
As anyone who has read about historical events of this nature will know, whether it be a world war, a famine or even the sinking of the Titanic, curiously, which led to all sorts of social change, huge change comes out of them. I think that what will happen because of this will be the future direction of the EU will be greatly influenced, and the debate between those who think there should be more Europe and those who think there should be less will be influenced by this.
One could argue that because of what has happened to Europe and the issues with vaccine contracts and what I have said about the ECDC and so on is an argument for more Europe. On the other hand, what has happened in the UK, as committee members will be aware if they can bear to read some of the press there, has convinced people they did the right thing.
As for the impact, I was reading earlier that one step the UK is going to take, because the EU threatened the supply chain, is to attempt to decouple itself from the EU supply chain and become more self-sufficient. The impact of this on the UK, ironically, might even be that it has a better Brexit. Part of the power of the UK and the British Empire over centuries was based on innovation, whether it was the quality of its armadas, the steam engine or any of the other amazing innovations that came from and fuelled the empire. I think this will give an impetus to the UK to become more self-sufficient and to increase its use of innovation. As for how far that will go, I do not know but one can see how this will, perhaps, change the direction in which one might have thought the EU, or the UK post Brexit, was going to go.
Mr. O'Sullivan has sent me the information I was seeking. I thank him for that. Will Ms O'Reilly comment on the transparency between the European Border and Coast Guard Agency and our policing authorities in the context of people's fundamental civil and human rights?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
That is a member state issue. Obviously, I am aware that civil rights issues have been raised. The question always concerns appropriateness and balance and ensuring that measures that are introduced for a certain reason will not continue into the future if the reason they were introduced is no longer relevant. Frontex, as the agency is also known, has been very well resourced, including through soon having recruited 10,000 border guards, some of them armed. The implications for fundamental rights, if they are not monitored adequately, are significant. Many investigations, therefore, are ongoing into Frontex by the European Parliament. We are examining its complaints mechanism to ensure that it works and is real.
In a way, it could be seen as a proxy for the EU's attitude to fundamental rights, migration, asylum seekers and so on. It is the agency charged, in one way, with dealing with part of that problem. People might say it is the most acute one. Some member states or people might think that keeping people out, or the protection element, is emphasised and others want more emphasis on fundamental rights. It must be remembered that irrespective of people's opinions on what should be done, there are laws and regulations that govern its operation. It is also bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
There are few Murphys on this committee. It is great to have this conversation with Ms O'Reilly this morning and it is fair to say that since she became Ombudsman in 2003 and European Ombudsman in 2013, she has really been to the fore in finding the truth in terms of ethical standards and trust. She spoke about trust today and there is much conversation about how transparent Europe was in dealing with the pandemic.
Politicians are not held in very high esteem by the Irish people. I heard a conversation on the radio this morning indicating that a very low number of people trust politicians. Ms O'Reilly made some very open and frank comments about how we do our business in Europe. How does she find the institutions react when she might be telling them to get their act together, for example, or be more ethical in what they say to people? In dealing with European Medicines Agency or the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, does she find that people acknowledge her role, respect it and try to correct what she sees as inadequacies when giving a truthful position to European citizens? I have other questions but members have asked them already so I will not repeat them. I thank Ms O'Reilly for being with us this morning.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
I thank the Senator for his warm comments. They are very much appreciated. In general, my recommendations are well accepted by the institutions. The only place I get pushback tends to be in respect of transparency or freedom of information. In Ireland, which has an Information Commissioner, there is an Ombudsman to make binding decisions. In Europe, we make recommendations so the institutions still control the tap. Sometimes it takes a while for recommendations to be accepted; we are trying to influence a cultural change or shift so that something that might have been recommended a couple of years ago might only come to fruition a few years afterwards.
We have done much work on the transparency of the European Council, the ministers from member states who make law with their co-legislators in the European Parliament. I have been trying to show the real-life impact of this. There is the example of two current pieces of advice. One relates to bees, pesticides and advice from the European Food Safety Authority. Advice was given to member states in 2013 but it has been stuck, with no decision made as to whether it would be implemented by member states. The problem is that we cannot know which member states are holding up matters. We do not know if it is the Irish, the French, the Germans or whomever who might be under pressure from constituencies at home and who do not want to go along with the advice as a result. As citizens do not know that, they cannot therefore influence their own member state. If we knew Ireland was blocking a particular regulation that some constituents may favour, the only way the Senator could influence this is if he knew in the first instance who is blocking the process or how it is being blocked.
This goes back to what happens in the Oireachtas and the extent to which it holds the Government accountable. I remember that people from a parliamentary committee in the UK came over before Brexit and the chairperson complained that ministers went to Brussels but people did not know what they were doing or agreeing. I asked the chairperson to ask the ministers because the accountability lies not with Brussels but with the relevant national parliament, which, in the case of Ireland, would be the Oireachtas. That is very important.
In general, my recommendations are accepted but I have also learned to play the long game, knowing that sometimes baby steps are required. Sometimes a recommendation is made and we can go off to do our shopping for a long time before it might be agreed. Since I took office, we know that relatively few citizens, going on the basis of the number of complaints we get, need the European Ombudsman because their daily needs are taken care of by people like the members at this meeting, the relevant ombudsman and all of that. At a European level, there is a different type of issue. Whether it is a big investigation into the ECDC, the transparency of trade deals or similar big matters, I seek to do work that if done and accepted will have a trickle-down effect on many citizens, even if they have never heard of the European Ombudsman.
I thank Ms O'Reilly for joining us. We really appreciate the contribution she is making today. I am interested in the pressures of the pandemic and the fear of diminishing checks and balances on the basis of those pressures. I will ask about two specific cases that came across her desk. These are allegations that Frontex was complicit in illegally pushing back migrants in the eastern Mediterranean in order to stop them from entering the European Union. There are also allegations of physical altercations between migrants and Frontex personnel and that the agency also operated outside the European Union. Has Ms O'Reilly concluded her investigations into Frontex?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
They are ongoing. As I said, there are quite a few investigations into Frontex, including by ourselves. We are looking at the complaints mechanism introduced in respect of Frontex a few years ago under a new regulation after it had for a long time refused to accept a complaints mechanism or the need to have one. Its point of view is that any abuses or violations of fundamental rights or any problems that arise in the context of a Frontex operation are the responsibility of the member state and that the agency is just there to co-ordinate and help. We disagreed with that and pointed out that Frontex is a European agency. The uniforms of Frontex guards have the EU logo on them so the agency has to take responsibility or to forward complaints if they are made. I made a special report to the European Parliament in that regard, which it supported, and there is now a complaints mechanism. However, the extent to which that is known about or used is contested. We are looking quite forensically at this, asking very basic questions such as how many complaints there have been, how many were admitted or dealt with and what was the outcome. This is simple stuff.
The Senator mentioned other issues. We would not look at alleged pushbacks in a particular state or so on, including what a member state did. We would look at how Frontex acted. We are going through in fine detail with Frontex the protocols it uses in cases such as those outlined by the Senator. This takes in decision-making, how it deals with collaborators in member states and so on. We can go through what is almost an administrative checklist of what is supposed to be done versus what is done.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
Frontex has always been co-operative. We have also looked at its transparency, along with the slightly complicated and difficult way for people to get records or documents from it. In general, however, when we go to it, it assists. The agency is obliged to.
The real power of the office is not in our recommendations, as they are not binding, but in that we can inspect any document we need to see. We have greater powers than the European Parliament in that respect. We can demand to see and get any document, no matter how confidential or secret it is. It does not mean that we can publish them. However, when people get our analyses and reports, they know they are founded on all of the facts.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
-----the contract was to devise a report on banking, regulations relating to investment in sustainable projects and so on. It is critical and important to climate change and what regulations will come to deal with it.
There was an allegation of a conflict of interest. Our finding was that there was not maladministration because, according to the tight rules of the Commission on what constituted a conflict of interest, to our mind it was not fair to suggest that the people who looked at this did not follow the rules. What we did say was the conflict of interest did not encompass the issue posed by BlackRock. A company, on the one hand, was advising and dealing in energy products while, on the other hand, it was helping to make the rules in a way or advising on rules that could be made in climate change regulation.
Our recommendation was for the Commission or the Legislature to look at the guidelines for what constitutes a conflict of interest. The overarching point I made on that was that one had to join the dots. On the one hand, the Commission comes up with a good vision as to what it will do to prevent climate catastrophe. The Commission President, Madame von der Leyen, described what could be done as the EU's moonshot moment. One has to link those big statements, however, with the smaller steps taken in other places. A small step is to give a contract to a particular company that may have a conflict of interest in those matters. It is all part of this which has to be recognised by the institutions.
Ms O'Reilly looked at the initial assessment for the procurement of the Covid vaccines with pharmaceutical companies. Was the European Commission in the best position to carry out advanced procurement? Is it the best administrator to make key decisions in that kind of a crisis? When it comes to the negotiations between the European Commission and pharmaceutical companies, especially AstraZeneca, is Ms O'Reilly in a position to say there was more transparency with the public? Could the deals have been more effective? Could they have inspired more confidence in the EU's ability to roll out such programmes?
A significant amount of public money was given to the pharmaceutical companies to develop these vaccines. The pharma companies, however, then kept the patents and intellectual property rights. Ms O'Reilly said earlier that this was causing problems in Europe in getting the vaccines manufactured. Developing countries are now relying on big pharma for these life-saving vaccines. There is a possibility that Third World countries will be left behind in this process.
I agree with Ms O'Reilly on transparency. If there is transparency from the start, it does away with social media doctors and people getting their information from unreliable sources. That is where an awful lot of problems have arisen.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
I agree with the Chairman on the developing world and poorer countries. However, it is not just those countries that will be left behind if they do not get their populations vaccinated. It will be all of us who will be left behind. We know enough about this clever virus now to realise that, if people are allowed to go unvaccinated, it will allow mutant variants to arise which could be far more deadly than the ones we are dealing with now. If large populations around the world are left unvaccinated, that is where those variants will thrive. Eventually and inevitably, they will come into our own countries. It is not just altruism that should encourage us all to help in the vaccination effort in poorer countries. It is actually self-interest.
At the moment, everybody is stuck in this self-interest mode, although it should be recognised that the EU is contributing a lot of vaccines and funding to enable vaccine programmes to take place in developing and poorer countries. At the moment, however, it is very mé féin. There was a story last week that the UK would give people in Ireland vaccines. I do not see that happening anytime soon. In fact, the UK has denied it as well. Equally, the US is far more protectionist than the EU.
Once that panic has abated, it would be morally irresponsible, at the very least, and stupid not to make sure as many parts of the world are vaccinated as well. If not, it will all come back to haunt us again.
On the vaccine contracts, we have looked at access to documents but we have not looked at the way these were negotiated. It is not Madame von der Leyen who signs off on these. It is the member states which all sign off on decisions made about these contracts with this special committee which comprises the Commission and seven member states at the centre. It is something obviously that we might look at. We might get complaints about it. However, our focus and my mandate concern solely the actions of the Commission and not necessarily the member states.
One of the reasons there continues to be pressure on the pharmaceutical companies to be open, as well as on the Commission to ensure transparency about these contracts, is precisely because the companies in question got a lot of European money to develop those vaccines. Accordingly, they are our vaccines and our transparency.
I have followed some of the debate on the patents and I am not sure where that is at and I cannot comment with any great insight into it. What I do know is that one of the revolutionary parts of the vaccine creation has been the open access to scientists and the incredible unprecedented collaboration that has taken place among scientists of the world. It has not happened before. Before, there were particular sectors of the population who needed the vaccine and now everybody needs it. The imperative to throw everything at it is huge. As I have said, we are far from being out of this. We are still learning. There is still this frantic pace of events. It will be a while before we have the time to examine this. At the same time, I do not think we should wait forever or wait for another few years before we start looking at this because even now we can put into play some of the lessons we can learn now from how the pandemic has been managed. Inquiry is very important, and not just, or not even, for the blame game but just so that we can learn from it. It is a matter of protecting our health that we look into the decision-making at all levels.
My apologies. I had to step out of the committee for a few minutes so if one of these questions has already been asked please indicate and I will move on to my next question. With regard to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, investigation, am I right in saying Ms O'Reilly was critical of the interaction of the ECDC with the Chinese authorities? If so, will Ms O'Reilly elaborate on this?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
When the first draft of the investigation came back to me, my colleagues had stated they found the interaction with the Chinese centre for disease control was fine. I was a bit surprised at this because I had read a lot about this and we all read about what happened in China. The WHO is still wrestling with finding out its exact origins. People have read all the speculation and the reports about what happened at the very beginning. I found it a bit puzzling as to why the ECDC would say everything was fine with the Chinese authorities. I asked my colleagues to ask again or find out the reasons. I do not have the report in front of me so I cannot exactly detail it but my impression was that the ECDC stated that insofar as the authorities they were dealing with were able to give it certain information, they gave it that information but the issue was the chain of command. The Chinese centre for disease control could not independently give the information. It had to go up to the very top to get authorisation for the release of information. Insofar as it shared the information it was allowed to share, it did so but the question remains as to what had happened at the other level and what was kept back. It is a bit of a subtle distinction but I think I get what they were talking about. I felt this needed to be explained, given all of the speculation and negative reports on how the Chinese communicated about the virus from the start. It was right to be a little bit questioning on it.
Moving on to the approval of the vaccinations, I am not sure from some of the comments she made in the Parliament as to whether Ms O'Reilly or her office were concerned that the vaccine approval process might have happened too quickly.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
No. That was not something we had concerns about. It was not something we investigated. I am not sure we even received complaints about it. The way I saw it, if we want to use an analogy, is that if three people are on site building a house it will get built in a year but if 100 people are on site building a house it will get built in a few months. Everything that had to do with the creation of a vaccine or the authorisation of a vaccine was speeded up because there were simply more resources being put at it. If normally on a Friday afternoon people would close the files and go off for the weekend people continued to work on the files over the weekend. I have found nothing to suggest that the authorisation was done rapidly. The European Medicines Agency has a good reputation. It is headed by an Irish person at present. I am sure it was under pressure . I have no doubt about that. From what I have seen, however, it did not cut corners on the authorisation of vaccines.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
We sent a lot of letters to the Commission, the Council and certain key agencies, including the EIB, at the beginning. These were general letters asking for transparency on what they do, especially at a time when people's processes, including this committee's, have changed or are different and there is not the same access or access pathways. The EIB is responsible for a huge amount of money and will be responsible for the distribution of future funds, whenever that is signed off. It will play a key role on where investments are made. We keep an eye on this. We have dealt with a number of complaints over the years about investments made by the EIB with regard to procedures, its handling of complaints and conflicts of interest at member state level. It is a body with which we have quite a lot of contact. I can arrange to send the Deputy an update on our investigation of the EIB.
I thank Ms O'Reilly. Something Ms O'Reilly has spoken about today, and something she speaks about quite a lot in public, is the blame Brussels culture and the ease with which individual member states try to make the EU an unknown or faceless bureaucrat to blame for decision-making at member state level. If I am correct, is the criticism under way of the EU procurement process on the vaccine an example in Ms O'Reilly's mind of the blame Brussels culture? At the same time, earlier in the meeting she spoke about the ECDC not wargaming Covid properly. The US and UK treated it like they were facing a war and mobilised their resources. Ms O'Reilly feels Europe has not done this. Am I correct that this is her view?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
The Commission proposes and the member states dispose. That is it. The Commission does not make the decisions, it is the member states that decide. If we look at the various ways in which the vaccines have been rolled out, I am in France, which was a bit reluctant about AstraZeneca from the start, and when particular issues emerged, one minute it was giving AstraZeneca only to those aged over 60 and the next minute it was giving AstraZeneca to those aged under 60. Those figures are not quite right but France changed its decision-making on who should get it very quickly and completely. It did a 180° turn. That was not the Commission, it was France making up its own mind. There was a very interesting long article in Le Mondeyesterday about President Macron's attitude to vaccination generally. Initially, he was of the view that no vaccine would come on track until the end of this month, so he devised his policies around this.
He is under pressure now in relation to lockdowns and so on. The point I am making is that, for all that Brussels proposes and negotiates certain things, ultimately it is the member states who are proposing them. The way the pandemic has been handled and the vaccine has been rolled out is completely different in every member state. I was talking to an MEP from Malta the other day and asking how things were among that small population and he told me they took an aggressive approach – "aggressive approach" was the term he used - at the beginning. I think they now have one of the highest levels of vaccine take-up. It will be a while.
We hear anecdotally about France, which has a fantastic health system and so on. If I wander around Strasbourg, on virtually ever other street corner there is a place I can go in, get a free Covid test and get the result within 12 hours. They do certain things well, so I expected the roll-out of the vaccine to be at a similar level to the UK but it has not been. There are all sorts of cultural and political issues relating to that. That is the point I make about blaming Brussels. It is the individual decisions made by the member states that to a large extent - we can argue about that and we will find out empirically what that is - have dictated the play in each member state.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
Exactly. Austria was not one of those. Austria took what one could describe as a frugal approach and now they want more and the other member states are saying, "No, you didn't ask for them in the first place." Then they are saying they will block this, that or the other. It is borne out of panic, fear and who the heck knows. I do not envy any politician having to make choices based on, as I said before, a playbook that was not written and is not there.
In the context of the last discussion with Deputy Murphy on the procurement and roll-out of vaccines and the role of the Commission and the member states, I, as a parliamentarian at a remove, would be critical of the European Commission. If a straw poll were taken of members of the public, they would say unambiguously that their confidence in the European institutions as a consequence of what happened with the vaccine, when they see what happened in the UK and under the Biden Administration in America, is low. I am not interested in the blame game. Rather, as a pro-European, I am interested in seeing the institutions strengthened. If we are talking about transparency and accepting there is no playbook, how do we avoid in future what has happened with the vaccine roll-out?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
At the beginning of the crisis when countries started seeing cases and knew there were very bad things for their people coming down the track, there was a panic. Certain countries refused to export their personal protective equipment, PPE, to hoard it and all of that. Certain countries, particularly the bigger ones, wanted to go their own way on that, which obviously was going disadvantage other countries which did not have the same capacity or resources. It was the Commission and other leaders that persuaded the member states to take a different approach and to try to take a joint approach, if possible. That led to a fairer distribution of PPE and other health resources.
On the joint vaccination procurement, it was done with the same intention that it would not be the states who could afford it that were going to buy everything up and that we would jointly agree this. That is what happened; it was jointly agreed. People see the Commission, Madame von der Leyen and so on, but sitting around the table with Madame von der Leyen are the Irish representatives as well as the Spanish representatives, the Polish representatives and everybody else. It could be argued the Commission is doing the work, has the information and is ultimately more influential than an individual member state, but the fact is the member states were all involved.
On the Senator's question of how to avoid this in the future, the member states have to learn the lessons of this. Do member states want more Europe and a more centralised European response, which would be significantly better than what we have seen, or do we want a go-it-alone strategy, which will inevitably disadvantage smaller countries, including our own? Those are big political decisions but people need forensically to analyse what went on, to be honest with the public about where responsibility lay and to put forward proposals which would avoid this happening so the next time one person, and it always starts with one person, in, say, Ireland emerges with a potentially lethal virus, the wargaming has been done and there is a united approach to it.
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
Outreach can be challenging at the moment but we should realise that every member state's petitions committee is as important as the European petitions committee. Everything starts and ends in the member states and that is how the committee should frame the relevance of the work it does and its importance.
I will come back in on three other points. Ms O'Reilly made a recommendation, I think it was in January, to the European Commission about creating an online portal for funding. Was that recommendation taken on board and implemented? Second, there was a previous inquiry conducted by Ms O'Reilly relating to the EU Presidency and the corporate sponsoring of same. Have there been any breaches of that since? I presume not. My final question concerns the award for good administration. I want to end on a positive note. The deadline for that award was the end of January. How many organisations have been put forward, given the year it has been?
Ms Emily O'Reilly:
I thank the Deputy. On corporate sponsorship, I regard that as a successful initiative for us. It was a complaint we got relating to the fact that when new EU member states hold a council, which can be an expensive process for them, they invite corporate sponsors to sponsor them. The concern was they would be given privileged access to the Commission, to regulation-making and so on. Initially, the Council said it was nothing to do with it and that it had to do with the member states. We disagreed because people see the member state acting as President of the Council. Latterly, the Council has accepted our view that it has a role. We did not recommend that sponsorship should end but that the Council should develop guidelines on what is and is not acceptable. The Council has accepted that. Germany did not have any sponsorship. Portugal has sponsorship but we await the Council guidelines on that.
I can get back to the Deputy on the portal but I think it had to do with the fact that a lot of money is about to be put into the member states.
People need to know where that money is going, who is getting it, who is accountable and so on. It was in that context that we suggested a portal to the Commission. This would allow us to easily see what Ireland or any given company got. I am not sure where we are on that but we will certainly get back to the Deputy on it. I thank him for raising the nice, happy friendly thing I do, which is the awards system. We are now on our third iteration. We did not know if anyone would enter this time but we got almost 40 applications from all over the EU, the agencies obviously being spread all over the place. We are looking at those applications now and I believe we are to have the awards ceremony at the end of June. The President of the Commission, Dr. von der Leyen, has agreed to say a few words at that. I am sure she was delighted to be in a position to say nice things about the great things the EU administration does. I thank her for that.
I would also like to thank the Ombudsman. I do not see any other Members wishing to speak. I thank both of the witnesses for attending virtually today. I hope that, as we go down the road, they will be able to visit us in person. The discussion has been very beneficial and informative to the committee and, on behalf of the committee, I wish Ms O'Reilly well in her future work as European Ombudsman. I hope she and her staff stay safe and I wish them a happy Easter. As I have said, I hope she will be able to appear before the committee in person in the not too distant future.
Before we suspend the meeting, there are some formalities to go through. I propose that we publish the opening statement of Ms O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, on the committee's website. Is that agreed? Agreed. I also propose that we publish the submissions received from the Scottish Parliament, the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia and Mr. David Lowe on the committee's website. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I propose that we again approve the minutes of the private meetings which we have already approved during virtual private meetings. We must do this for procedural reasons. The meetings in question were held on 10 December, 21 January, 4 February, 18 February and 4 March. Is that agreed? Agreed.