Strong criticism of the management of EU funds was voiced by MEPs at the 2009 budget discharge procedure kick-off meeting on Tuesday, where they questioned Court of Auditors President Vítor Manuel da Silva Caldeira about the Court's annual report.
The Court of Auditors concluded that in most policy areas, over 95% of payments for were made correctly, and that error rates continued to decline, in 2009. However, supervisory and control systems for payments are still weak, and information is not yet reliable, especially with regard to recovering amounts paid out irregularly, it added.
Rapporteur Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (ALDE, DE) was "happy with the positive trend of reducing error", but critical of the "lucky sample" of countries that the Court had used as a basis for its report. "These countries are mostly small and situated in the North-West and North-East of the European Union. The statistics look good, but should not be overestimated. Especially in the areas of cohesion policy and agriculture the performance should be better", he said, responding to the presentation.
Member States still doing too little
On cohesion policy, the Court pointed out that 30% of the errors identified could have been detected and corrected by Member States. "Here we cannot escape the conclusion that the Commission only makes little progress. I feel the political will is lacking", said Mr Chatzimarkakis. For 80% of the funds, the management is "shared" between the European Commission and Member State authorities.
The rapporteur insisted that "the Commission should impose sanctions on countries with sloppy financial management and should be less sensitive to political pressure not to do so." He mentioned the example of Greece, where "for ten years money was sent without having an EU-compliant audit system in place. Here the taxpayer is literally fooled. If countries break rules, there should be consequences", he said.
Look at output, as well as input
Audit Commissioner Algirdas Šemeta pledged to follow up the Court's recommendations scrupulously. He shared concern about Member States not informing the Commission about corrections made, or to be made, to payments, but also underlined that he wanted to put more stress on the quality of the financing, rather than just its legality. "We are interested in the impact and added value of our expenditure, by looking at output instead of input only", he said.
Other MEPs were also critical. Ingeborg Grässle (EPP, DE) said the report was "less informative than last year", and asked the Court to come up with error rates per Member State.
Catalin Sorin Ivan (S&D, RO) said the Commissioner's assurance that 95 % of spending is not affected by errors was overly optimistic and far from realistic. More effort should be put into scrutinizing the reports on EU spending in the Member States, he said.
Member States "don't do what they should. Their management and control systems are not in order. The Commission should tell them, because Member States undermine the implementation of the EU budget", said Bart Staes (Greens/EFA, BE).
The European Parliament is the EU budget discharge authority. Following the audit and finalisation of the annual accounts, Parliament will - on a recommendation by the Council of Ministers - decide whether or not to grant discharge to the Commission and other EU bodies for their spending in 2009.
The discharge for budget implementation is the decision by which the European Parliament "releases" the Commission from its responsibility for management of a given budget by marking the end of that budget's existence.
The report of the Court of Auditors will be presented in the plenary session on Thursday 11 November.
In the chair: Luigi de MAGISTRIS (ALDE, IT)