World changing for 'behind closed doors' EU agencies
by Monica Macovei
EU agencies work on diverse issues that are vital to Europeans' daily life – and citizens are increasingly demanding transparency and value-for money in the way they work, writes MEP
European Union agencies often make the headlines, but not always for positive reasons. Conflict of interests, mismanagement of taxpayers' money, or weaknesses in terms of accountability: they have been criticised on many grounds. As rapporteur for the 2010 discharge of the agencies, my purpose was to have these issues finally addressed. There should be no loose ends.
The discharge is an annual procedure consisting of the final approval of the EU budget and looking at how taxpayers' money was spent by the institutions. The European Parliament's budgetary control committee is responsible for checking the accounts based on the annual audits performed by the European Court of Auditors. The parliament is the discharge authority of all the European institutions, including the court of auditors. We should not just stamp the court's reports. We have to be pro-active and look for information and evidence: it is our duty to make sure that taxpayers' money is managed according to the rules, be this to the displeasure of some, we have to see it through.
In 2010, the EU counted no less than 24 decentralised agencies, 21 more than in 2000, with a total budget of €1.658bn. Being spread all over Europe, sometimes to satisfy the member states' pride at the expense of rationality, they work on tasks as diverse as the certification of airplanes or the coordination of European border management. EU agencies' tasks are essential, if not vital, for the European citizens' daily life. However, they have long been considered by some as a remote paradise where decisions are taken behind closed doors. But the world is changing, the citizens want transparency, they want to know what and how these EU institutions are exactly doing, if it is for the best-value-for-money and if they are trustworthy.
EU agencies have many challenges ahead of them and among the greatest is the prevention and management of conflicts of interest. This issue is even more pressing for the agencies maintaining a high-level of interactions with the industry due to the nature of their mission. Conflicts of interest are a cause of corruption, fraud, mismanagement of funds and human resources. Increasing transparency is a sine qua non condition to prevent their occurrences. EU agencies must publish on their websites the list of their experts, managerial staff, and management board members together with their declaration of interests and their educational and professional background. Some took my proposal on board and I am confident that the implementation of such basic measures to a larger scale will greatly mitigate risks of conflict of interest. In parallel, EU Agencies must adopt specific rules to prevent and manage conflicts of interest based on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development guidelines.
Fighting conflicts of interest was a centrepiece of my work as rapporteur. This led me to postpone the discharge of the European Medicines Agency and the European Food Safety Authority. Given the impact of their decisions on the citizens' health, I believe that their reputation should be above suspicion. Yet, I observed severe weaknesses in these two agencies in terms of independence from private interests. By postponing their discharge, my aim was to reinforce EMA and EFSA by giving them a strong incentive to finish the cleaning or at least to have in place an irreversible and structured policy against conflict of interest. I worked with EMA and EFSA on ways to improve their policies and they certainly showed willingness. To acknowledge their efforts, I proposed to grant them the discharge but I will continue monitoring the measures put in place: implementation and concrete results are the only elements to prove the efficiency of the new policy and procedure.
Conflicts of interest were also reasons for postponement and then refusal of discharge to the executive director of the European Environment Agency. However, in this particular case, the issue was also combined with several others such as the abuses of public procurement rules, the 79 missions of the executive director during 2010 with a total duration of 142 days and travelling costs of €127,000, proving that the executive director is responsible for 13 per cent of the total travelling expenses of the agency, and other managerial failures. These are facts that needed and still need to be accounted for, even if the parliament decided to grant the EEA its discharge by a small majority. This is why I believe that problems cannot be fixed by the current executive director. The EEA deserves a proper and transparent management and European citizens deserve protection of their money. My work as rapporteur was to break the existing seals and address the long-standing problems existing in the EU agencies. Doors have been opened and will not close soon.
Monica Macovei MEP is a member of the European People's Party and sits on the European Parliament's budgetary control committee