Dons claim win in EC case

September 29, 2000

Italy's foreign-language lecturers have received limited support from European ombudsman Jacob Soderman over their complaint that the European Commission mishandled their job discrimination case against the Italian government.

The lecturers objected to the decision to drop the key issue of professional status from European Court proceedings.

The ombudsman's report, which was published last week, says that the commission should have invited the lecturers to respond to its decision to alter the legal basis on which it was dealing with their case.

But the ombudsman appears to consider the omission to be a formal one of administrative procedure rather than a substantial one that would have significantly altered the course of events.

The lecturers' main criticisms - which concern commission maladministration, denial of access to documents and failure to detect false information supplied by the Italian authorities - were all dissolved or rejected as being irrelevant to the inquiry.

The lecturers, who are claiming victory from the ombudsman's report, insisted that it supported their allegations of a secret deal between the commission and the Italian government.

The lecturers argued that the commission had deliberately withheld its decision to alter its pleadings because it knew that the information supplied by the Italian authorities could easily be rebutted.

Mr Soderman, who has closed the case, recently asked the European Parliament to review the rules governing the ombudsman's duties.

In calling for more freedom in which to operate, Mr Soderman complained that no member state imposed so many restrictions of such a vague and general nature on their own ombudsmen.

Last June, officials representing the cabinet of the commission president, Romano Prodi, told lecturers that the commission would reconsider their case.

In August, however, the commission confirmed that it considered infringement proceedings to be adequate.

In the meantime, the European Parliament's legal affairs committee has secured a debate for the Strasbourg plenary session that begins in October. In that, Mr Prodi is expected to come under pressure from the Scottish Nationalist MEP Neil MacCormick and others to restore the issue of status to the foreign-language lecturers' case.

A spokesman for Mr Prodi's cabinet said that he was unable to comment on the report. Italian government officials in Brussels, however, appeared optimistic about next month's parliamentary debate.

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