Day of reckoning approaches as Prodi faces ‘Grim Reaper’

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Series Details Vol.7, No.30, 26.7.01, p17
Publication Date 26/07/2001
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Date: 26/07/01

By Peter Chapman

THE grim reaper is coming - and nerves are starting to jingle in the European Commission. It may not be the final reckoning but it may well feel like it for some, as the European Court of Auditors finalises its first annual report on Prodi's administration since the demise of the disgraced Santer Commission. It's nearly written and President of the Court Jan Karlsson admits to already feeling the weight of public expectation on his shoulders . Like a man-eating shark, the European citizen has developed a taste for blood. The Luxembourg-based Court is no longer expected to churn out a turgid report on EU funding of Spanish motorways or poor financial control in DG what's-its-name. The man in the street wants to hear that Karlsson has exposed fraud, mismanagement and wrongdoing.

And to feed those expectations, Europe's media will pore over every one of the hundreds of pages of dense text to find it. Karlsson fears it is getting to the stage where there is a danger that the reality of the Court of Auditors cannot live up to this public perception. "Our mission is to see to it that the European citizen has reasonable guarantees that the European money that they pay via their tax bill is well spent," he explains. "But please understand that we are not a European FBI and we don't intend to become one. That is not the task. If you go there [to Commission offices] with a judicial or police mission then you can't be the collaborator that we intend to be. What we establish is a dialogue. What we try to ensure is that there is an improvement." But he is quick to add that any evidence of wrongdoing is immediately sent to OLAF, the Commission department responsible investigating allegations of EU fraud. So what will this year's report actually say? Although treaty-bound not to go into detail, Karlsson does offer some serious pointers. Since Jacques Santer declared himself 'whiter than white', Budget Commissioner Michaele Schreyer, personnel chief Neil Kinnock and Romano Prodi have overseen a series of budgetary and staff reforms to ensure the worst excesses of Santer's reign never again haunt the institution.

Karlsson says it may be too soon to make a proper judgement on their effectiveness in this year's report. "I think that we are going in detail to reserve our position until we have better evidence of how it is working. But that day we will not spare our words at all." This doesn't mean his team of number-crunchers will show mercy if they find the books don't add up before the reforms take hold. "That would be a serious misunderstanding of the role of the annual report. If we find something that is relevant and reliable concerning shortcomings or mistakes, we will report them." Despite his obvious caution,

Karlsson believes his report will answer his critics in the European Parliament who have complained that the Court of Auditors has often failed to 'go for the jugular'. "Without going into detail we will give enough audit evidence to MEPs and the Council to work over the financial system of the Union - we will also present such evidence that the Parliament has been demanding," he says. There will be ample evidence of the Court's get-tough policy in a raft of new special reports - which usually uncover murky practices in specific budget lines.

It has issued more and more of these reports over the past few years and Karlsson says this is a trend which will continue. In a piece of typical Swedish openness that nearly sends his press officer into a tailspin, he unveils the topics of forthcoming special reports, approved by the Court but not yet made public in the EU's official journal. They include a "big one" on the employment schemes of the Commission and others covering the TACIS programme which channels EU funds to the former Soviet bloc, export refunds and the integrated agricultural control system. "We also have audited the way in which the regulations on the regional fund and social fund have been operated...which is quite critical." Final proof of his healthy scepticism of the Commission comes through loud and clear in a briefing with audit managers from EU candidate countries, who have just finished a five-month internship at the court in

Luxembourg .He is clearly in no mood to preach to them the superiority of EU audits or management standards - especially while memories of the Santer years are still fresh. "If everything in the EU was perfect," he says, "there would have been no need for the reforms." Karlsson tells with relish a story of the astonishment of a former Polish intern upon hearing that the Commission had point-blank refused to supply a document to audit staff. "In Poland, we get them," she told him.

Feature on the European Court of Auditors as it prepares its 2000 report on the financial management of the European Commission.

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