I understand the arguments presented by Deputies Haughey and Brophy about how good legislation has been done through a process which is less than transparent or, indeed, accountable at European Council level. Deputy Haughey asked would we be able to get much of this work done if everything was out there and there was not this room for a diplomatic safe space. The problem is that the current process does not match the rights in the European treaty for citizens to see how legislation has been processed. In a way, the problem is that they are using the diplomatic processes we are accustomed to in the areas of defence, foreign affairs or international relations in a legislative process.
The EU cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, it cannot decry populism, along with those who blame Brussels for everything and give a distorted view of how the EU legislates, while insisting on using a process which does not allow for full transparency or for the sort of accountability one gets in the Oireachtas or other member state parliaments and governments. When one is trying to get 28 member states to agree on non-sensitive issues, their positions can be recorded and there is not a problem. On sensitive issues, however, it is a problem and one can understand the impulse of keeping one's hands across one's homework, if one likes, until one gets consensus and the issue across the line. If the price for that is that Eurosceptics, as well as those who are anti-EU, can claim that proves we are being ruled by undemocratic and faceless bureaucrats and the EU does not afford citizens the right to have full accountability for what is done in their name and for them, then that is a problem.
There is also an issue of political maturity. Obviously, the impulse in many member states, as well as at EU and Council level, would be to get these things through with the minimum of fuss. People are accustomed, and therefore expect, there to be argument and debate. People are also accustomed to political parties and groupings making compromises. According to the treaty and various rulings made by the European Court of Justice, that is the way it is supposed to happen at EU level, even though the difficulties which the Deputies spoke about can arise. There was an interesting court case in 2012, when a transparency NGO, Access Info Europe, sought to get records of member state positions on, curiously enough, the EU transparency regulation. The European Court of Justice agreed that records of member state positions should be made publicly available and as soon as possible. What happened then? The Council accepted this, meaning any member state positions which were actually recorded would be released. However, they now simply do not record them in many instances. There is a consensus, nod of the head or an informal agreement on a particular matter. If a record does not exist, then it cannot be accessed.
The Council has three months to deliberate on my proposals. Obviously, I will be interested, and I am sure other member state parliaments will be interested, in what position it takes. As an ombudsman, if I have difficult recommendations to get across the line, it can be hard to do so if mine is the only voice. All members of the committee will have observed, however, a head of steam is building up around this. There have been calls from certain member states, the Dutch in particular, as well as civil society and the European Parliament, for the Council to become more open. As we move towards the 2019 European Parliament elections, and as the debate on the future of Europe becomes more intense, this will be an issue.
On the comments I made in my investigation and here earlier, blaming Brussels has led to many bad things. We might as well try something else.
Hungary and Poland are difficult issues for the EU. The EU has soft power and has been trying to use initiatives and dialogue to have certain member states, which seem to be rolling back democratic norms and the rule of law, to heed what it is saying and bring their value systems in line with what they are supposed to accept by virtue of being members of the Union. It is difficult. We have seen what has happened in Poland. The European Commission's First Vice President, Frans Timmermans, has done much negotiating with the Polish Government and we will see what happens. People are not as engaged with this as much as they might be about Brexit or migration. However, it goes to the core of what the EU is meant to be about. If certain member states are not accepting the foundational basis of the EU, then that is a big problem. I do not believe any of us have the answers to that. We have to continue to support the ombudsmen in those countries, as well as civil society groups as much as we can.
On Senator Coghlan's question on the culture of cover-up, I do not find one. All of the institutions and agencies have become much more transparent over the past several years. Curiously enough, social media has played a large part in that, plus a generation growing up with high expectations of transparency. I do not believe they can resist that.
The President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, will respond to me in April on whether he will suspend his membership of the G30 until he leaves office in October 2019. I am hoping he will respond positively. I have had several cases with the European Central Bank. It has always collaborated well and has made all of its processes much more open as a result. I am hoping for a positive response.
On Deputy Durkan's questions about the European Medicines Agency, I remember back in 1982, when I was working in the Sunday Tribune, doing a two-page article on drugs pricing and generic drugs. It is still a significant problem. Being home over the past few days, I have listened to the conversation taking place on the Joe Duffy radio programme about the withdrawal of a certain drug. Whatever the ins and outs of it, I was struck by the human stories, the suffering the people affected are going through and their belief that this particular drug was helping them to tolerate almost intolerable situations.
The issue of pricing is also important because a number of people who spoke were able to point to the price of that drug in Northern Ireland but also in the US. A lot of work is being done at European level in the context of harmonising these issues. That is important because if the EU is to be for citizens, I cannot think of any more important areas in respect of which it should for the citizens than those of health and, as Senator Dolan mentioned, disability.
Regarding the trade negotiations and TTIP, as members are aware, we did a lot of work with the Commission regarding making the talks far more open. In fairness to the Commission, it has really transformed its transparency policy on that. I think the Commission was quite stunned by the level of engagement regarding the TTIP negotiations and realised that times have moved on, the rules of the game have changed and it could no longer do things behind closed doors and had to transform the way in which it did business. As was rightly noted, the TTIP talks are stalled at the moment but last year, the Commission set out its five principles of trade negotiations and for the first time, one of them was transparency. It is true even in the way it has conducted itself with regard to Brexit. I know there are political reasons behind the transparency as well but an awful lot is out there. It is still early days. When we really get down to the hard negotiation about the future relationship between the UK and the EU, we will see the limits of transparency.
I forgot to mention a point about Council transparency. If we look hard enough, we will be able to track a particular regulation or a particular player who is putting down amendments and so on. A lot of it is down there. If one knows the right people within a particular working group or a particular ambassador, one can get the information. In a sense, that creates a playing field that is not level because a well-resourced lobbyist or global corporation in Brussels will be able to afford to send people out to do nothing but track the trajectory of a particular regulation 24-7. In a sense, this gives privileged access to people while not allowing ordinary members of the public or civil society who would not be as well resourced to have their say.
With regard to the lobbying register, I agree that there is huge unevenness across member states. Ireland is very often talked about as a model in the context of its lobbying register. When people are speculating or talking about the improvements that could be made at EU level or within member states, they often point to the Irish register. I have tried to interest my member state colleagues in the issue of lobbying transparency. Some are very engaged with it because they recognise it as an issue and recognise the role lobbying can play in the making of legislation. Obviously, a piece of legislation is the sum total of every influence brought to bear on it. Other countries do not think it is a big deal and have a system of revolving doors where people move very rapidly from public service or politics to big industry and often back again. Some member states do not see that there is a problem with this. If one examines the Volkswagen scandal, the role lobbying played in that and the revolving door issue, one can see that people are increasingly waking up to why this is important. I think we will see developments in this area. I try to raise awareness of this issue at every opportunity, whether it be by dint of a complaint or through an investigation on my own initiative.
On disability rights, I think the Senator and I were both at the meeting at the European Parliament where people with disabilities from across member states came together in plenary. It was quite a remarkable session. I had been to one or two of those previously. What I found really interesting, not just as European Ombudsman but as a citizen and human being, is that when one is in a room where everybody present has some kind of disability, be it visual or a physical incapacity, and is attempting to do what all of us take for granted every day of the week. When one sees the challenges they face, even in a very well-resourced place like the European Parliament building, it really does bring home to one the challenges that remain. I think Ireland is about to ratify the convention, or we hope it will, which is very good. It has been delayed. I think we are only one of two countries that has not ratified it. Are we the last country?