Nov 30, 2015
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In 2012 and 2014, Joaquín Almunia, the then Vice President of the European Commission and Commissioner responsible for competition, made public statements concerning an ongoing investigation of a possible cartel. Crédit Agricole, one of the companies under investigation, complained to the European Ombudsman that the Commissioner’s statements breached the principle of impartiality by indicating that he had already made up his mind as regards the bank’s involvement in the cartel before the investigation was complete.
In an unprecedented finding, in March 2015, the Ombudsman made a preliminary finding of maladministration and issued a recommendation that the Commission “should (1) acknowledge the maladministration that has occurred in this case, apologize for it and (2) take steps to avoid similar problems in the future.” The Ombudsman urged the Commission to “issue guidelines on public statements by Commissioners about ongoing investigations.”
On November 11, 2015, the Ombudsman closed the inquiry, reiterating her earlier finding of maladministration. Although the Commission had stopped short of acknowledging any maladministration and had failed to apologize or issue the recommended guidelines, the Ombudsman was satisfied that the Commission had taken steps to avoid maladministration of this kind in the future. Whilst the Ombudsman would not seek to interfere in the substantive interpretation of the competition rules, we do expect to see more active involvement from the Ombudsman in competition cases to ensure that the Commission exercises its enforcement powers in compliance with the fundamental principles of good administration, such as impartiality and fairness.