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The Warsaw Voice » Society » June 3, 2015
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Fighting for Human Rights
June 3, 2015   
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European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who investigates complaints about EU institutions, talks to Justyna Zarecka.

The 10th National Seminar of the European Network of Ombudsmen took place April 26 to 28 in Warsaw, focusing on the problem of discrimination. What did the seminar achieve?
In my opinion, the European Network of Ombudsmen represents the best of European values: democracy, equality and the rights of citizens, namely, those which need to be guaranteed. Maybe our seminar was just a small piece, but lots of small pieces, when they come together, can change the overall mindset. Furthermore, the seminar in Poland was of great importance to me. We commemorated millions of people who died because of discrimination and racism during World War II.

During the seminar you discussed the question of migrants’ rights. On April 23, EU leaders also discussed this problem and decided to reinforce European Union operations involving Frontex, the Warsaw-based EU border agency. Your first special report to the European Parliament referred to this agency. Did your report change anything?
In our report we claimed that Frontex should have created an internal complaint mechanism. They resisted that, and said: “If there is a violation of human rights, that is the fault of member states and it isn’t a problem for Frontex.” We did not accept that because of the fact that Frontex is involved in a great number of operations of that kind and often, when immigrants arrive in Europe, the first person they see is a border guard with a Frontex label and the EU flag. Complaints which come to Frontex might be handed over to Italy, Poland, and so on. But people should have a central place where they could lodge a complaint—without thinking what the relevant institution in each European country is. I presented this issue to the European Parliament, where the decision will be taken. I am not saying that it will solve the whole problem, but it is an important piece.

In 2013, around 23,000 European citizens asked you for help. At the same time, the Polish Ombudsman registered over 70,000 complaints. Do you think that EU citizens are still unaware of the European Ombudsman?
You’re right, perhaps there is an insufficient awareness about the European Ombudsman. People do not always realize that the European Ombudsman deals with complaints specifically against European institutions. I try to build up their awareness, mainly by ongoing investigations which have an impact on citizens. One of the biggest investigations I have done is the one related to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) [the proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States.] As a result, we can see more clearly what is happening in TTIP negotiations. I think that it is quite a success of mine.

You are an example of a woman who has achieved success while raising a family. You have five children. What is your recipe for combining work with family life?
Sometimes, the work I do in Europe is easier than raising a family. But I think that women—with all respect for men—are good at multitasking and are very flexible. Today, lots of women work and have a family life.

But we still do not have many women in public life. How can we change that?
In some countries, where child care is very expensive or nonexistent, it can be very difficult for women to have a very successful career. Sometimes, they do not choose well-paid jobs because it seems to be too demanding for their family lives. Of course, we also have the example of Christine Lagarde [the managing director of the International Monetary Fund] or [U.S. presidential hopeful] Hillary Clinton, but there still exists a certain gap between a few at the top and those at the bottom. I think that is a common issue for Poland as well.

Some countries have a quota system whereby, for example, political parties would not get subsidies or could not register their tickets in elections if they failed to have a certain percentage of women as candidates. Is this a good solution?
Some women will say, “I would like to be elected not because I am a woman, but because I am bright and very good.” Of course I understand them, but we have to realize that plenty of very bright, good women were not elected precisely because they are women. We still have a lot of sexism and discrimination in European society. So I think that if nothing else works then let’s try quotas and we’ll see. Maybe this would help to increase the participation of women in public life. At least we should try.

Emily O’Reilly is a former journalist and broadcaster who became Ireland’s first female ombudsman in 2003. In 2013, she replaced Nikiforos Diamandouros as the European Ombudsman. She was reelected in December 2014 for a five-year term.

The European Ombudsman, who is appointed by the European Parliament, is an independent official tasked with holding the administration of the European Union to account. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration in EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies. More than six in 10 inquiries conducted by the European Ombudsman in 2013 concerned the European Commission. The Office of the European Ombudsman is based in Strasbourg, France.
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