Emily O'Reilly: Transparency clauses should have been built into vaccine contracts

It is up to Ombudsmen to hold public administrations to account by showing them what the effects of policy decisions are

Photo: EO Emily O'Reilly.

It is a welcome step that the vaccine contracts have been or are in the process of being published but regrettable that transparency was not an automatic step. The public row in February between the Commission and one of the companies about the contents of one of the contracts was very damaging to public trust, says Emily O'Reilly, European Ombudsman, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Ms O'Reilly, after the pandemic broke out you asked several European institutions for more transparency with regard to the Covid-19 crisis. What do you think is their behaviour now, about eight-nine months after they sent you their replies?

I wrote to key institutions shortly after the start of the pandemic to remind them that transparency and accountability standards have to be maintained during crisis times - that in fact they become even more important as people need more reassurance about why certain policy decisions are taken and on what evidence.

For example, I asked the European Medicines Agency to ensure that the objectivity and independence standards it has for assessing requests to approve medicines continue to be as rigorous for Covid-19 treatments. I also looked into decision making in the Council - where EU Member States are represented - with a view to ensuring that the public can still follow policy making even when certain emergency measures have been put in place due to the pandemic.

On the whole, the EU institutions are conscious of their transparency obligations but it's up to my office to constantly monitor the situation as there is a natural tension between wanting to take decisions quickly and efficiently and allowing proper democratic scrutiny of those decisions. Crisis times exacerbate this tension.

You recently concluded a six-month inquiry into the performance of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) during the Covid-19 crisis. What conclusions did you come to?

With the onset of the pandemic, the ECDC, which is a relatively small agency based in Stockholm, found itself thrust into the European and international spotlight. It quickly became clear that there was a mismatch between expectations about what the agency could do and its actual mandate.

I decided to look into how the ECDC gathers information, the transparency of that information, and how it communicates with the public. My inquiry showed that the ECDC had difficulty gathering useful information about the pandemic as it is entirely reliant on Member States' goodwill in providing relevant, accurate statistics on time. There was a low response level to its surveys, sometimes national authorities sent only incomplete data, while some Member States highly affected by Covid-19 did not respond at all. This meant there was no single EU-level reference point for up-to-date information about the evolution of the pandemic in Europe. My inquiry also found that the ECDC could improve how it presents information - for example by making it clear when its risk assessments have changed and why - as well as how it communicates with the public.

My main finding was that the ECDC lacks the powers it would need - such as the capacity to get information directly from national authorities - to be able to carry out its tasks properly. I am asking Member States and the European Parliament - who will soon debate a draft law giving new powers to the ECDC - to reflect on my findings.

And how has the EC answered your inquiry about the vaccine contracts? Are you satisfied with that answer? Have you received these documents?

My office has opened two inquiries related to the transparency of vaccine contracts negotiated by the Commission. In the meantime the Commission has published - with redactions - three of the six contracts it has negotiated with pharma companies and has told our office that it plans to publish the remaining ones. It is a welcome step that the contracts have been or are in the process of being published but regrettable that transparency was not an automatic step. The public row in February between the Commission and one of the companies about the contents of one of the contracts was very damaging to public trust. Given the naturally huge public interest in this issue, transparency clauses should have been built into the contracts. However, it is also important to point out that there is a negotiation team of seven Member States plus the Commission involved, and the final contracts are signed off by all Member States.

What have the EU citizens complained about the most in the last year during the Covid-19 crisis?

The profile of Ombudsman complaints can reflect the major issues in society at a given moment so quite soon after the pandemic started we started to receive complaints related to Covid-19. Many of them concerned access to EU documents - such as the vaccine contracts or documents relating to meetings that the Commission had with lobbyists during the pandemic. We also had several complaints by researchers whose work - funded by EU money - had been disrupted by Covid-19 and were seeking paid extensions for their projects. Other complaints question why certain decisions had been taken by the EU administration during the pandemic.

Each year my office also receives a number of complaints that are outside my mandate as they are related to national institutions. In 2020, several of these were linked to health, education or travel measures national authorities had put in place in response to the pandemic. As with all complaints that are outside my mandate, we helped direct them to the relevant EU or national organisation that could help them.

What is your opinion on the planned “digital green vaccination pass”? How fair is it, taking into account that people cannot be vaccinated due to a lack of enough vaccines and this will most likely be the case in three months' time, when the preparations for these documents will be completed?

My office does not look into questions of policy, but it is my task as European Ombudsman to monitor whether such important decisions taken by the EU are done so in a transparent manner and explained clearly to the public.

How many more individual rights will we have to surrender in the name of our common health, common safety or some other common enemy?

It is up to Ombudsmen - who are often the first to hear about citizens' grievances - to hold public administrations to account by showing them what the effects of policy decisions are. At the EU level, my task is to remind EU institutions of the importance of giving public access to relevant documents and of ensuring that civil society can properly scrutinise policy decisions. If citizens are convinced that authorities are acting fully in the public interest they are more likely to cooperate willingly when new measures are introduced.

Close-up

Emily O'Reilly was first elected as the European Ombudsman in July 2013. Following the European elections, she was re-elected for a five-year mandate in December 2014 and again in December 2019. As the European Ombudsman she investigates maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the European Union. In 2003, Emily O'Reilly, an author, former journalist and broadcaster, became Ireland's first female Ombudsman and Information Commissioner and was additionally appointed Commissioner for Environmental Information in 2007. She was awarded the Schwarzkopf Europe Award in 2017 and the Prague European Summit Vision for Europe Award 2018 in recognition of her work. Ms O'Reilly is married and has five children.

Similar articles