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The irresponsibility of the European Agencies
Press control and financial freedom?

By ‘Mr P.’

© Bron 20020120 all rights reserved.

The European Union has launched itself on a new wave of institution building. Many people may not even have noticed. The new institutions are the so-called ‘satellite agencies’. Scattered throughout the European Union, such specialised agencies include bodies for anti-fraud, aviation safety, racism, medicines and a dozen others. Commission President Romano Prodi has promised that there will be many more.

How are these agencies faring? Can Europeans be confident that not only are they performing a useful function but they are acting responsibly and obeying the law? What are the control systems?

Take as an example the European Environment Agency, destined to provide information in an area that is everyone’s concern. Situated in Copenhagen, in one of Europe’s least corrupt states, the agency has now been working for more than a decade. How does it measure up to exercising its responsibility in three vital ways: financial control, respect for administrative regulations and assuring open information access?

A recent case brought almost by accident before the European Ombudsman gives grounds for worries about their entire structure. The European Ombudsman’s role is to investigate cases of maladministration in an impartial, legal way. In one of the Ombudsman’s longest and deepest investigations disquieting facts were unearthed in all three of these areas. The case shows how easily agencies can ignore laws on finance, administrative regulations and information access, and how abuse can take place. Only years of persistence by the Ombudsman’s staff provided the solid facts on which he could give an unprecedented THREE judgements of maladministration. The citizen is left wondering how many other cases are still buried in paperwork and obfuscation in a mountain too immense for the disappointed and demotivated citizen to challenge.

The EEA case showed that instead of press freedom and financial control the EEA policy was one of press control and financial freedom. That may be a knee-jerk reaction of some bureaucracies. It cannot, however, be permitted at a European level, which should be an example to national systems of openness, democratic responsibility and the rule of law. The management attitude of ‘let us do what we want and leave us alone’ is not defensible in organisations that represent all European citizens. They are not private companies but new sovereign services belonging to and paid for by all European citizens. But because of their inadequate structure, there is a real danger that many agencies are already developing as independent fiefdoms, with sections completely out of Community control.

The complaint to the Ombudsman involved a tender for sub-editing environmental articles and documents. A journalist, whom the Ombudsman called Mr P., applied. He had many years’ experience in environmental journalism having worked in television and written from some of the most respected publications like New Scientist and Nature as well as US and European newspapers. He applied for the tender only to provide himself with a steady income while researching a book.

A few weeks later an official phoned him saying he had been selected and asked for details to write up the contract. However, after an exchange of phone calls, faxes and emails, the EEA suddenly refused to return his calls. Then it sent him a letter saying the tender had been awarded to someone else.

When he complained, an EEA official said that it was now too late to change matters. He suggested that on the basis of his qualifications – he had degrees in physics, journalism and European studies – he could do some editing on a one-time contractual basis. But the EEA manager who had phoned him with this offer never came through with a proposal. Nor did the official reply to his letters or his boss.

Many people would have left it there. However his journalists’ trades union asked the EEA for the background papers on the public tender. The EEA Executive Director refused to supply any documents at all; a rather curious attitude on what should be public information on public tenders. The reason he gave was even more curious: ‘the protection of public and private interests’ and ‘industrial and commercial secrecy’! Such an answer is all the more surprising as in Brussels the European Commission is obliged to publish all calls for tenders in the Official Journal – which is instantly available online in all languages. The results of the tenders, often involving multi-million euro contracts, are also published. It is also common practice that companies who tender can often attend the opening of bids in Commission offices and have full information about the prices other companies have submitted.

Yet as far as this European agency was concerned, financial information about part-time editing contracts for journalists would seriously expose the European Union’s vital financial interests. Revealing editing rates per page of other journalists was also a matter of the highest European secrecy, even though they are usually based on published tariffs!

It was at that stage Mr P. called for the help of the Ombudsman. He was no superman with an instant solution. Several years later after examining the documents and the EEA claims, the European Ombudsman gave his opinion: three black marks for not obeying Community law. One, the EEA had not followed tender rules. Two, it had not followed administrative procedures laid down in Community legislation. And three, it had not applied information access rules as laid down in law.

If a citizen breaks the law he is liable. What happens with the agencies? Nearly seven years after submitting his bid, Mr. P has not still received basic information. Why after designating him as the ‘contractee’ did the EEA Board substitute other names they admitted were ‘less technically qualified in environmental matters’ ? His request for compensation for the loss of the three years’ work of the tender has gone unanswered. Having launched himself on an investigation of his own case, he got a bigger surprise. His analysis of such agencies showed how financial regulations applicable for much larger contracts can easily be fraudulently manipulated and how some agencies are trying to muzzle the press in spite of European legislation on open access to information.

To be continued
© Bron 2002

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