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Round table: The Ombudsman Institution at European, National and Local Level
 
On November 28, 2006, the Center for the Study of Democracy in cooperation with Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria held a round table discussion on The Ombudsman Institution at European, National and Local Level. Guest speaker at the event was the European Ombudsman Prof. Nikiforos Diamandouros who spoke before representatives of non-governmental organizations, local public mediators from throughout the country, representatives of foreign missions and officials from the Bulgarian ombudsman’s administrative staff.

In their opening remarks the Chairman of CSD Dr. Ognian Shentov and the CSD Law Program Director Dr. Maria Yordanova acknowledged the significant contribution of Prof. Diamandouros, both as a Greek Ombudsman before 2003 and afterwards as a European Ombudsman, to the successful establishment of the ombudsman institution in Bulgaria. As underlined by Dr. Shentov, the present visit of the European Ombudsman to Bulgaria is even more significant in the light of the upcoming accession of the country to the European Union. As of January 1, 2007, Bulgarian citizens and legal entities registered or having their offices in Bulgaria will all have the right to complain to the European Ombudsman and, as Dr. Yordanova added, Bulgarian society will need to be well informed on the powers and scope of activities of this institution.

Before presenting the activities of the European Ombudsman Prof. Nikiforos Diamandouros explained that his visit to Bulgaria is part of a series of visits to all EU Member States and the candidate countries – an initiative aimed at reaching out to the national governments, NGOs and media as well as strengthening the cooperation with the national ombudsmen. Prof. Diamandouros praised the efforts of CSD to promote and support the establishment of the ombudsman institution in Bulgaria. He used the occasion to thank the experts at CSD for the significant results they have achieved, underlining the important role of the civil society in helping the ombudsman to more effectively protect the rights of the citizens. Further in his presentation the European Ombudsman briefed the participants on the new rights Bulgarians will acquire once the country enters the EU. European citizenship, which will automatically add to the Bulgarian citizenship, will create new opportunities for the people to seek protection of their rights such as access to European institutions (including the right to address the European Commission as the Guardian of the Treaties anytime when a national body violates European law), right to seek redress (including before the European Court of Justice) and right to go to the European Ombudsman.

Concluding his presentation Prof. Diamandouros described the four main categories of complaints the institution is usually receiving, namely typical cases of maladministration (e.g. rude behavior), irregularities as regards recruitment procedures, contractual relations between EU institutions and third parties, and access to documents.

During the discussion that followed Prof. Diamandouros answered a number of questions posed by the audience. Replying to a question by the Public Mediator of Sofia Municipality Mr. Angel Stefanov the European Ombudsman explained the cooperation of the institution with national, regional and local ombudsmen in the EU Member States. All ombudsmen, Prof. Diamnodouros said, are colleagues whose main cause is the better protection of the rights of the citizens.

Elaborating on a question asked by Mr. Mihail Ivanov from Dr. Zhelyu Zhelev Foundation Prof. Diamandouros explained the difference between an ombudsman and a court of justice. Unlike the court of justice, which rules in favor or against, the ombudsman is free to search for a consensual and friendly solution. Besides, it is the ombudsman who could help when there is maladministration, which is formally legal according to the law. It is very important to know, Prof. Diamandouros said, that although each illegal act is maladministration the opposite is not always true.

Asked by Dr. Maria Yordanova about his opinion about the establishment of specialized ombudsmen (a topic that is currently discussed in Bulgaria, in particular as regards a healthcare ombudsman) Prof. Diamandouros reminded that although there is no “one size fits all” solution, experience so far has showed that specialized ombudsmen fit better in countries with long established traditions as regards the rule of law and human rights. There are specialized ombudsmen in many countries, the European Ombudsman said, but most of them have been created long time after the establishment of a national ombudsman. Meanwhile, for the new democracies the creation of several ombudsman institutions bears the risk of actually undermining the authority of the institution.

In conclusion Prof. Diamandouros answered a question by Mr. Vladislav Slavov, Member of the Constitutional Court and Chair of the Union of Bulgarian Jurists, who asked about the relations between the European Ombudsman and NGOs. The practice of the European Ombudsman showed that the best formulated and structured complaints come from NGOs. In this respect, Prof. Diamandouros noted, the work of NGOs has significantly helped the ombudsman in identifying and addressing serious issues of maladministration, in particular in areas such as discrimination, environmental protection, etc.
 
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