Brussels, 12 February 2019
Note to the attention of Mr Luca Jahier
President of the EESC
Mr Gianluca Brunetti
Secretary General of the EESC
– Report of the European Ombudsman proposing new measures against harassment in the EU institutions
Through our notes of 26 November (link) and 17 December 2018 (link), we drew your attention to the urgent need to shed light on several cases of potential harassment within your institution. In particular, we pointed out that, up to now, the EESC’s management of these dossiers had been inadequate, to say the least, and that a feeling of impunity seemed to have developed, which had not failed to provoke an entrenched discouragement of colleagues.
We would like to confirm that we have started our steps following the requests for help addressed to us by many EESC colleagues.
On the one hand, following the distribution of our notes above, we received overwhelming support reactions confirming the full extent of the problems on which they are based, by inviting us to continue or even strengthen our action aiming that all light be shed.
On the other hand, in response to our efforts, Mr. Brunetti seemed to trivialize the scope of the potential problems, even calling into question our right to defend these colleagues and address these difficulties…
Similarly, as soon as several press articles echoed these problems, he seemed to question the credibility of these media outlets.
In short, Mr Brunetti seemed to want to try to convince that everything was going well within the EESC by inviting us to move along and look elsewhere…
On our part, we confirmed that this attitude of denying all that could be denied and trivializing what could no longer be denied was not sufficient to respond to the seriousness of the situation and we continued to claim that all clarity is done.
The opening of formal investigations is necessary within the EESC
It seems now you finally convinced yourselves that it is urgent to open formal investigations to shed light on the facts that led more than twenty colleagues in 2016 and twenty-five colleagues in 2017 to approach the network of confidential counsellors (figures provided by the EESC to the Committee on Budgetary Control of the European Parliament), which have been the subject of complaints to OLAF (at least four complaints in 2018 according to the press) and which have been relayed by EESC members and the press (link).
If this is the case, we can only welcome this decision which, although very late, constitutes an essential first step in establishing the facts and responsibilities of each one. It is certainly expected by colleagues who, until then, were faced with a plea of inadmissibility despite the persistence of the problems they were faced with.
Nevertheless, it is still necessary that these investigations be organized in a credible manner and by meeting the highest standards in this area.
Recommendations of the European Ombudsman published on 17 December concerning the management of harassment cases
In this respect, you have undoubtedly become aware and truly appreciated the recommendations of the European Ombudsman, Mrs O’Reilly, regarding the handling of cases of harassment (https://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/correspondence/en/107799) and we draw particular attention to some major concerns.
It turns out that her proposals, which we support in all respects, are based on the good practices observed through the exchanges that the Ombudsman has had with twenty-six institutions and agencies.
It is not, therefore, a matter of innovative ideas that would be the fantasy of the hardliners, as you seemed to qualify our demands.
It is simply the application of the rules of the Staff Regulations of the European Civil Service, the case-law and the fundamental principles of respect for dignity at work (Article 31 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union), to “all personnel working in EU institutions, regardless of their status” as the European Ombudsman recalls in her report, that is to say, including members of the institutions.
Given the current situation in the EESC, it is crucial for the credibility, not only of this institution but of all the EU institutions, to take up these best practices as soon as possible in order to be in line with the legitimate expectations of the staff , and with the recommendations of the European Ombudsman
With regard to the question of the inquiries to be carried out within the EESC, two aspects emphasized by the European Ombudsman deserve, in the immediate future, the greatest attention.
In this respect, Mrs Madi Sharma, a member of the EESC, whom we wish to thank once again for her resolute action in this field, has already attracted your full attention, and we can confirm that her concerns are also ours and are the same as those expressed to us by our colleagues.
1) The independence of the investigators
With regard to the phase of dealing with harassment situations, it is fundamental that investigations are conducted in an impartial and fair manner and that they are also perceived as such by the parties concerned, which involves investigators specialized in the matter and, above all, independent:
Independent investigators – For investigations to be effective, investigators need not only to be impartial and fair, but also perceived as such by all parties concerned. Where an EU body does not have the resources to assign a specialised team to investigate harassment allegations, they should consider using external investigators. Where appropriate, EU institutions and agencies should make use of and help develop the ‘pool of independent investigators’ set up in the context of the EU Agencies Network.
(Point 2.4 Report of the European Ombudsman on dignity at work in the EU institutions and agencies, points 30, 32, 32, 33 of the best practices identified)
We therefore ask that investigations within the EESC fully meet these requirements.
2) The need to put in place all measures likely to avoid any perception of risk of conflict of interest or dual role of “judge and jury”
Indeed, as Mrs Sharma always rightly emphasizes, it is essential to avoid that the people who have to make decisions about the treatment and handling of the cases of harassment can be the same ones who, in particular by their functions, are or have been called to directly handle these situations within this same institution.
How do you intend to reconcile the requirements with the conflict of interest issue?
Moreover, as Mrs Sharma also pointed out, the administrative inquiry carried out at the time which gave rise to the 2015 judgment of the Court showed its limits to the behaviour of the EESC member.
Therefore, it is in everyone’s interest to organize an external investigation, carried out by independent inspectors.
3) Accountability and strengthened sanctions for anyone with a political mandate and not subject to the Staff Regulations
With regard to potentially involved persons, the European Ombudsman recalls that respect for dignity at work concerns all persons working in an institution. This also includes people with a political mandate, such as EESC members.
Contrary to the feeling of impunity towards the members of the EESC and the powerlessness of the administration towards them which seems to have developed within your institution, as the Ombudswoman underlines, the sanctions against persons having a political mandate must reflect the severity of inappropriate behaviour at high levels and result in enhanced disciplinary action having a real scope and making offending person powerless to do harm again.
High-ranking personnel – Individuals are particularly vulnerable to harassment where there is a power imbalance between the parties involved. This can be mitigated through more demanding rules for high-ranking personnel, who are not covered by the Staff Regulations, such as commissioners, judges, members of the Court of Auditors, members of the Economic and Social Committee and so on. These could include aggravated disciplinary measures, such as compulsory retirement or removal of pension rights. High-ranking personnel should be informed of all anti-harassment rules and policies at the beginning of their mandates in a comprehensive manner and at regular intervals.
(Point 2.5 Report of the European Ombudsman on dignity at work in the EU institutions and agencies, Points 34, 35, 36 37 of the best practices identified)
Thus, as regards the situation at the EESC, there can no longer be question of establishing mushy codes of conduct, and the fact that a member of a political group is directly concerned should not to be an excuse not to act on the grounds that it is not subject to the Staff Regulations of the European Civil Service.
Just as it is no longer acceptable that the staff made available to EESC members through TA 32 (c) contracts is considered to be exploitable endlessly, being also subject to the whims of members.
4) Victim protection and compensation for damages
It is also crucial to put in place adequate measures for the protection of victims and witnesses called upon to collaborate in investigations as well as remedial measures, particularly when people in precarious situations have lost their jobs or saw their contract or working conditions being deteriorated.
Rehabilitation measures – EU bodies must put in place mechanisms to support and help victims of harassment. Where appropriate, victims or perpetrators of harassment should be moved internally. Victims should receive counselling, and employers should ensure that their career progression is not impaired.
(Point 2.6 Report of the European Ombudsman on dignity at work in the EU institutions and agencies, Points 38, 39 of the best practices identified).
As the report of the European Ombudswoman states: “victims’ employers should closely monitor the situation to ensure that their career progression is not damaged.”
In conclusion, in view of the complaints lodged by colleagues, the referral by several OLAF persons, the position taken by the European Ombudswoman, the vote of the EESC Group I members, at the request of the Committee on Budgetary Control of the European Parliament in the context of the budget discharge, we ask you to inform staff as soon as possible about the measures you have taken or intend to take and how soon you intend to organize investigations in a credible way to finally deal effectively with harassment cases within the EESC.
In this respect, we allow ourselves to recall once again that the actions of some have been known and reported in judgments of the Court since the beginning of the 2010s.
Ms E. O’Reilly, European Ombudsman
Ms Madi Sharma, Member of the EESC
Ms I. Graessle, President of the Committee on Budgetary Control of the European Parliament