Wisdom disappears in the back rooms of compromise and game-playing

21 October 2014

Wisdom disappears in the back rooms of compromise and game-playing

Dennis de Jong in conversation with Alex Brenninkmeijer
additional text by Claire Jansen


Dr Alex Brenninkmeijer, formerly the Netherlands’ national ombudsman has since 1 January 2014 been the Dutch member of the European Court of Auditors. Brenninkmeijer is a big supporter of more transparency within the EU and its institutions, a subject on which he spoke recently at a meeting organised by the SP’s European Parliament group. That is why the SP enthusiastically supported both his candidature for the office of European Ombudsman and his candidature for the European Court of Auditors. The latter was successful, and SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong spoke with Brenninkmeijer about the accountability of European Union finances just after his appointment to the Court of Auditors. That this accountability must be improved and above all be made clearer was a conclusion they both shared. Below is a report of their dialogue.

De Jong (DJ): A few years ago I went on a visit to the European Court of Auditors with the European Parliament Budgetary Control Committee. At first sight the Court of Auditors in Luxembourg seems a pleasant environment but appearances can of course always be deceptive. What has been your experience during your first six months?

Brenninkmeijer (B): Up to now I’ve got absolutely no regret about accepting the job. My first impression when I arrived here was that it’s strikingly well-organised, although there’s also a substantial bureaucracy that comes around to keep an eye on us. The discipline of accountancy I look at critically. It’s not for nothing that accountants are criticised the world over. Their professional ethics leave rather a lot to be desired. As Ombudsman I considered precisely these sort of values. I try also not to get bogged down in the technical side of the world of accountancy, but look instead from the perspective of the citizen.

DJ: The gap between the authorities and the citizen has on the European level been brought about in part by the fact that people don’t know where the money invested ends up, while an enormous amount of money is pumped back and forth. What can the Court of Auditors do to improve things in relation to this?

B: The most important thing is the clear use of language, which I immediately put on the European Court of Auditors’ agenda. We only do our work credibly if people understand what we do. If you use language which can't be understood, you won’t get anywhere. I have often said in response to reports, what I’m reading here is really difficult even for those with an interest, let alone for the majority of the public. This message is beginning to hit home. I note now, for example, that at the presentation of the annual report, people are really doing their best to greatly simplify the language used.

DJ: That’s also important for the European Parliament (EP). In the Budgetary Control Committee we base ourselves often on texts and reports from the Court of Auditors. The clearer and easier to understand the Court of Auditors’ texts, the clearer the reports from the EP. In Addition, we’ve been urging in the EP that more attention be paid to the assessment of achievement of goals. Are you also a supporter of this ?

B: Yes. If expenditure is done according to the rules, but has had no practical impact on the public then it's essentially useless. Of course, the Court of Auditors must respect the political framework. What we do is politically relevant, but not political. That goes for discussion of the achievement of goals : we look simply at whether what occurred made sense and then we're honest about it. Then politicians have to decide what they’re going to do.

DJ: How do you find working with so many different people from different member states? Is there pressure on members to overlook mistakes made in their own country?

B: The Court of Auditors’ working methods make that extremely difficult. We now have fixed groups of members each of which always looksnat the same kind of problem. That way we prevent national interests from getting the upper hand.

DJ: How do we actually solve the problem of the huge amount of errors made in the spending of EU moneys by the member states?

B: Let me begin with an example. I was on holiday in a small French village and spoke with the mayor. He told me that they were having problems with the accounts for a European project. In a conversation of that kind, you realise in an instant how small some councils are, so that for example there might be only two officials working at the town hall. These people aren’t really committing fraud, but they make mistakes because they don't know how to correctly apply the often complicated rules. A much discussed question linked to this is whether the Court of Auditors should give an insight into the financial situation of individual countries. Then you'd see where the possible problems are greater and whether that ought to have consequences. In my view we should be doing so, but with our existing working methods. As things stand, the error percentage we give is global. You might compare it to looking at the average grade of a group of students. It doesn’t tell you which are doing well and who needs to improve.

DJ : According to the European Commission, the member states do nothing or at best don't do enough with the results of investigations by the European Anti-Fraud Service OLAF. Member States say for their part that the quality of OLAF's research is unsatisfactory. The Netherlands, together with the UK and Sweden proposed that the presentation of national accounts should be made obligatory. Would in your view something like this help?

B: First of all I must say that I find the Dutch approach exceptional. If you look at how much is spent here on the control of expenditure of European money, it’s more than proportional. The Netherlands keeps very good checks and accounts very well for where the money goes. At the same time, it’s necessary to find a good balance between burdensome controls and correct accounting, and that’s not easy. Furthermore, you don’t in so doing get to the root of the problem. What primarily I have a problem with is the whole philosophy of 'we pay so much into Europe, so we want to get as much as possible back via the European funds'. This ensures that we always have a sort of battle over the money after which ministers go running back to their country and say ‘look what I’ve got – now we’ve got to spend this money’. That is of course a really sloppy way to spend money. And nobody asks what this should actually be about, which is ‘what would be sensible projects?’

DJ: In the SP we call this ‘pumping money around’. Together with fellow MEPs, most of them from liberal parties, in the last few years I’ve put forward proposals for a different system. We want to direct the funds at those member states which have the most need and in addition towards cross-border projects, for example those concerned with research and innovation.

B: In my view that’s completely correct. For countries such as Estonia and Lithuania the relatively small European budget means so much more than it does for bigger member states. For these smaller countries the European funds offer enormous possibilities. For the Netherlands it shouldn’t actually any longer be about the traditional funds, such as infrastructure and agriculture. But we could certainly benefit from money for research and development. In this way you concentrate the funds’ efforts and the chances of fraud are reduced. In the years to come, a healthy intelligence is essential, but you will see that yourself as a MEP. But as things stand that wisdom is disappearing in the back rooms of compromise and game-playing so it’s no surprise that most people are losing faith in Europe.

DJ: We see that also in the EP. The majority, for example, stick to the outdated deployment of funds and movement is hardly evident. I found it disappointing, too, that the European Commission in its first report on corruption had rejected the inclusion of the European institutions themselves in the investigation. There were things written, but these were scrapped by officials and by European Commissioners. In my view this was a missed opportunity. Will you be arguing in favour of a complementary investigation, perhaps by the Court of Auditors itself?

B: Yes, I can’t speak for the entire Court of Auditors, but I find that a very good idea. The margins of error within the European institutions themselves are, it’s true, very small, but that’s no reason to leave them out of the enquiry. This would also be better in terms of credibility. It’s a matter of setting a good example.

DJ: The margins of error in administrative spending are indeed very small, but at the same time the SP European Parliament group has been trying to improve the transparency of the European institutions, including the EP. European Commission Expert Groups are still not assembled with a view to balance, but with a preponderance of representatives of big corporations. The lobby register has not yet been made compulsory. And ex-Commissioners and ex-MEPs still go immediately to become lobbyists for big corporations or financial institutions at the end of their terms of office.

B: These points are of enormous importance. You will see moreover that when it comes to making progress on issues of integrity, member states are inspired by the Netherlands. The police in the Netherlands, for example, have very good methods, not only in combating corruption, but also in preventively promoting integrity. Some national courts of auditors are adopting these methods.

DJ : What do you think of the cooperation with the EP? I've noticed that the Court of Auditors does have an influence on the Parliament. Recommendations almost always go through.

B: Cooperation is going well, but the dialogue must be strengthened. In that sense I have no problem with the fact that a few months ago the EP again adopted an extremely critical report on the Court of Auditors. It mostly concerned the setting of priorities by the Court of Auditors. The EP’s view was that these could be better coordinated with the Parliament’s work. Although we are and remain independent institutions, the EP can provide an excellent source of inspiration for the Court of Auditors’ agenda. Moreover, in general the Court of Auditors doesn’t stand right in the centre when it comes to what's of interest. There’s a need for new policies. But financial accountability, now, people dislike it somehow.

B: We have each got our own role and position. But when it comes to the public interest and to what’s happening in Europe and influences people, then we can certainly strike the same correct note.

DJ: Do you have a closing message for the readers of Spanning?

B: There could be rather less vitriol directed at the European Union. I’m pleased that everyone can bring critical questions directly to the Court of Auditors. And a great deal must change in Europe. But Europe’s importance shouldn’t be underestimated. We’re writing history, that’s something we mustn’t forget.

Dennis de Jong is a Member of the European Parliament for the SP.


Alex Brenninkmeijer (1951) was Netherlands National Ombudsman from 2005 to 2013. Since January of this year he has been a member of the European Court of Auditors. At the same time he is professor of international aspects of the rule of law at the University of Utrecht.

The European Court of Auditors is the institution that since 1977 has monitored the EU’s finances. It also contributes to improving the EU’s financial management and produces a report on the expenditure of public resources. The European Court of Auditors has the right to inspect any body or person in receipt of EU money. Nobody in the Court of Auditors has, however, the power to institute legal proceedings. If something is amiss, the Court of Auditors sends a report to the European office charged with combatting fraud, OLAF.

The Court of Auditors is completely independent of other bodies. This is in order to prevent conflicts of interest and guarantee that it functions well. In the Court of Auditors each EU country is represented; Alex Brenninkmeijer is the member from the Netherlands. Members of the Court of Auditors are appointed for a period of six years. In addition, the Court of Auditors has around 800 employees. As well as inspectors, who are divided into what are known as audit groups, these include translators and administrative workers.

Photo: Hearing of Alex Brenninkmeijer, Ombudsman candidate, CC BY-NC-ND European Parliament

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