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Speech by Commissioner Johannes Hahn at the Budgetary Control Committee of the European Parliament - Discharge Hearing

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op donderdag 5 december 2019.

Madam Chair,

Honourable Members of the Parliament,

Reporting Members of the European Court of Auditors,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In past years, I regularly had the pleasure of exchanging views with your committee, and I look very much forward to continue doing so in the coming five years. Although at times we may have different views on some issues, we share an overall objective: To ensure that the EU budget brings added value to address the challenges ahead - and that taxpayers' money is spent well and in a proper manner!

I strongly believe that this can only be achieved through a good cooperation between our two institutions as well as with the Member States and not least with the European Court of Auditors. Also, I am aware that you - Madam Chair - and several of your colleagues are in a unique position to ensure that the lessons learned from the past in this committee are transformed into well-informed decisions on future spending in the Committee on Budgets. A good cooperation between your two committees can only bring further value to our work.

As Mr Lazarou and his colleagues just explained, we have a good starting point with a clean opinion from the Court of Auditors on the EU accounts for more than a decade and much lower error rates for expenditure than in the past. We also have a much higher focus on the performance of our spending programmes. I see this as a continuous process.

Today - in my new capacity as Commissioner for Budget and Administration - I would like to focus on a few, important challenges and opportunities ahead of us.

EU policies and the EU budget make the daily lives of EU citizens better, for example by:

  • Supporting enterprises to increase their competitiveness, creating new products, new markets and new jobs.
  • Supporting access to high-speed broadband for households and companies to boost the use of quality Information and Communication Technologies.
  • Supporting EU's research and innovation programmes to boost the fight against diseases.

These are just a few examples and there are many more. But when I talk to citizens, they often do not know what they get out of the European Union. They are not aware about how the policies of the Union and how the money from the EU budget is making a difference in their everyday lives. It is our common challenge, and obligation, to explain better the benefits to EU citizens, and to help them appreciate the added value and importance of investing at EU level. We must also show that we are able to make new and better choices if a programme is not delivering as expected.

The OECD confirmed that the Commission has an advanced framework for measuring and reporting on performance, with clear objectives and indicators.

But we can do better. For this, we need to ask ourselves: Have we set clear targets and objectives with meaningful indicators? Are we collecting the most useful data and information - and are we presenting it in the most useful way and are we using it to make our policies better? We want to provide you and your colleagues in Parliament with a solid basis for your political decisions on the future budget and on the discharge for the past budget. I look forward to working with you and the Court of Auditors in this area.

The Commission implements the EU budget in a complex environment, with a wide variety of partners such asMember States - which accounts for 75% of the EU budget - and international organisations. Beneficiaries are from all over the EU as well as countries outside the EU. EU funds are often spent far away from Brussels.

In such a complex environment, it is an important but challenging task to ensure that managers on the ground always do the right thing in line with our rules. The Commission - in cooperation with Member States and other partners - is continuously working to reduce risks and, where necessary, taking action to address any weaknesses found.

To me, it is clear that we must uphold the highest standards in financial management and focus on the main risks. I find that error rates are one set of useful indicators in this process but they are just that: indicators - and they only provide a part of the big picture.

The Court wants to modernise the Statement of Assurance and is testing a new approach for the cohesion funds. We will continue to support the Court's efforts. We are currently discussing how to build on the lessons learned in this pilot, adapt to the way we are doing things as necessary and extend the new approach to other parts of the EU budget. I am committed to this exercise and confident that our joint efforts will bear fruit. I think we can all agree that we should rely on available information if it is of sufficient quality.

Our common aim must be to optimize the audit of the EU budget and make sure that we focus our efforts on areas where they are most needed. We will not shy away from discussing sensitive issues such as conflict of interests or rule of law.

I would like to recall that errors do not mean that EU money is lost, wasted or affected by fraud. The Commission has zero tolerance to fraud - and I am fully committed to working for an even better protection of the financial interests of the EU.

The establishment of the European Public Prosecutor's Office, the on-going revision of the OLAF Regulation, and the new Commission Anti-Fraud Strategy are all important steps in this direction.

This Commission will continue on this path. I will focus on ensuring increasing protection of EU citizens' money, a strong and complementary action by the two bodies mandated to fight fraud at the EU level - OLAF and EPPO - and on providing both bodies with sufficient tools and resources to ensure better protection of EU budget, prosecution of criminals and more money recovered.

I would also like to say a few words about the organisation of the Commission. We need to ensure the performance of our administration.

I am committed to delivering on a digitally transformed Commission, a user-focused and data driven public administration. This means building and operating digital government solutions in support of better policies and simpler administration. This will not only bring not cost-efficiency but greater coordination. We have come some way in this but the challenge today is also to modernise and rationalise our digital set up in a more open, secure and sovereign manner. There again, I want the Commission to lead by example, sharing solutions and working alongside Member States in transforming the public sector for a Europe fit for the digital age. We need to work together.

This brings me to my final point: The next Multiannual Financial Framework.

Your many questions and points of discussions in this year's discharge procedure are most relevant to the future architecture, structure and priorities of EU policy and funding. Choices have to be made:

If you want to prepare Europe well for the future, then entrust us the resources to work for this.

If you want to increase focus on performance, then support clear objectives of programmes and useful indicators.

If you want to further strengthen compliance with rules and achieve lower error rates, then support simpler rules.

We already took into account good advice received from the European Court of Auditors when we prepared the proposals. Now, we need your support to make sure that the next generation of programmes is even better than the one we have now.

We are at a critical junction of the MFF negotiations. The Finnish Presidency is in the unique position to frame the basis for agreement - it is a difficult compromise, but we remain confident that it can be reached. The December European Council is a decisive moment in moving the negotiations forward toward a balanced, modern budget for the next 7 years.

As we often remind parties around the negotiation table, now is the time to decide and the sooner the Council reaches an agreement, the better: this will be the effective start of negotiations with the Parliament to grant its consent. Here again, I plead for realism, balanced positions and a core, shared objective by all institutions - to equip the Union with the means to deliver on its priorities, and to provide certainty to thousands of people - farmers, students, workers, researchers, SMEs, entrepreneurs.

Let us show that we indeed do learn from the past to improve the future! I look forward to working together with you to ensure that the EU budget addresses our common priorities for the future - and that we respect the highest standards of transparency and accountability.

Dear colleagues, this is a journey we are embarking together. A new European Commission, a new European Parliament, a new MFF and a lot of new ideas. It is in our hands to make the most of our time in office. And hopefully together we can make rules simpler and more robust, while enabling the budget of the European Union to underpin a prosperous and sustainable future for our citizens.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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