​Europe’s Next Ombudsman Is About to Be Elected

With the new parliamentary term, Europe is about to elect its next Ombudsman. These are the five candidates, and their chances to become the leader of the EU’s top rights watchdog.

Since 2019 has been election year in Europe, MEPs are due to bring the year to a close with one final vote: a secret-ballot vote to elect the European Ombudsman. The vote will be held during the December plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. In order to qualify for the nomination, candidates must show they have the required experience and get the backing of a minimum of 40 MEPs from at least two EU countries.

The following five candidates met both thresholds by the nominating deadline:

  1. Giuseppe Fortunato, current ombudsman of Italy’s Campania region;
  2. Julia Laffranque, an Estonian judge on the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg;
  3. Latvia’s Nils Muižnieks, former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights;
  4. Emily O’Reilly, Current EU Ombudsman and former Irish journalist;
  5. Cecilia Wikström, former Swedish MEP.

The next step happens today, when they will be questioned at a public hearing by the EP’s petitions committee.

What is the European Ombudsman’s role?

The European Ombudsman investigates complaints from citizens, EU residents and EU-based organisations about poor administration by EU institutions or other EU bodies, such as unfair conduct, discrimination, unnecessary delays or incorrect procedures. The ombudsman’s office can also launch investigations on its own initiative. It reports back to the European Parliament each year.

What are the candidates' chances?

Liberties spoke with institutional sources closely following the Ombudsman election process. Sources believe the main battle is between current Ombudsman O’Reilly, elected in July 2014, and Julia Laffranque, the Estonian judge on the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The first hearing will be followed by a first round of votes in which only two candidates will be forwarded to the second round at the December 18 EP plenary session in Strasbourg. The voting logic of the European Parliament is that the MEPs who backed one of the other three candidates will choose between the two candidates remaining in the second round. Ahead of the plenary vote, O’Reilly is expected to better mobilize votes of MEPs to preserve her position for the next five years.

What did O’Reilly acheive during her mandate?

The two most visible cases of the EU Ombudsman’s Office in recent years were that of former European Commission José Manuel Barroso’s ethical committee case, which reviewed his decision to take a senior position with Goldman Sachs bank. The Ombudsman's Office concluded that while reputational damage was done both to the Commission and to the wider EU, Barroso did not breach the Code of Conduct of EC commissioners.

In a second case involving the selection of the European Commission’s previous Secretary General, Martin Selmayr's appointment procedure lead to an ombudsman investigation. The Ombudsman reprimanded the EC for its shifty promotion of top civil servant Martin Selmayr.

From an internal EU perspective, both investigations strengthened the reputation of the Ombudsman’s Office, which is based in Brussels and has a staff of about 80 people.

Still, a number of MEPs unsatisfied with O’Reilly would like to see a different person in the position. Critical voices argue that though the European Ombudsman’s Office was set up to deal with individual cases, the institution in recent years has shifted its focus from individual cases to issues that matter to a wider scope of people. At the same time, more and more individual cases are forwarded to the Court of Justice of the European Union. For example, EPSO EU job competition complaints were forwarded to the ECJ, though if there is a systemic concern around the EPSO, they deal with it in-house.