Commission attempt to suppress EU immigration audit infuriates lawmakers

Martina Dlabajova and Ingeborg Grässle were both highly critical of the Commission's stance on the delayed report. [European Parliament]

EXCLUSIVE / The Juncker Commission has been fighting the European Court of Auditors to suppress a report on EU migration policy that should have been published by now. EURACTIV France reports.

Last year, a team from the European Union’s independent auditing body examined the bloc’s cooperation with third countries on migration and asylum.

Funding for this cooperation is allocated through the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), a programme that finances the development of small businesses and other projects, with a budget of roughly €1 billion over six years.

But the report, submitted to the European Commission in October 2015, was clearly not well received. Lack of evaluation and the huge costs of 23 projects, which allowed migrants getting back home to buy cows in Georgia, or set up pastry shops in Morocco, are the main focus of the report. 

The executive responded to the Court last autumn with comments so incendiary that they were “unpublishable”, making “the whole report unintelligible for the reader”, a well-informed source told EURACTIV.

Commission pressure

On 17 November, the European Commission also sent a letter directly to the President of the European Court of Auditors, Vitor Caldeira, stating its grievances.

The undated missive – signed by Commission Vice-Presidents Frans Timmermans, Federica Mogherini and Kristalina Georgieva – contests both the methods and the conclusions of the audit, which focused on the Barroso Commission’s spending on cooperation with the immigrants’ countries of origin, and the EU’s return policies to these same countries.

“This letter is a political error,” a source close to the report told EURACTIV.

Taking into account the executive’s remarks, the European Court of Auditors modified its report by erasing the highly-charged word “refugee” from the text. For our source, this change was “fairly logical, because the report was on immigration policy and did not mention asylum policies, which are decided by member states, not at a European level”.

Report corrected

Reviewed and corrected, the title of the new report has changed. It is now ‘EU spending in Southern Mediterranean and Eastern Neighborhood’. But it still sticks in the throat of the European executive, who plays for time. A Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that “The Commission already responded in 2015.” But the European court of auditors did not get any proper answers to the new report before Friday (28 January), a spokesperson for the ECA stated.

Timmermans told the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgets in December of his plans to combine the report with other audits due to be carried out in 2016.

In its 2016 work programme, the Court of Auditors planned a series of audits on asylum, migration and security, including the EU cooperation and financial aid to Tunisia that was already addressed in the delayed audit from 2015.

“This is very interesting. We want to see this report on migration!” Czech MEP Martina Dlabajova told Timmermans on 3 December last year. The European Commission’s second-in-command responded, “It is up to the Court of Auditors to decide if the scope of the report is relevant, and to choose the opportune moment.” 

But the idea of delaying a publication by an independent institution has left some observers furious, including the German MEP Ingeborg Grässle.

“It seems that the audited is controlling the auditor,” said Grässle, a member of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) who chairs the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control. Members of this committee addressed a letter to the president of the European Court of Auditors on this subject.

The report shall now be examined by the European Court of Auditors by the end of February. Its College will decide what to do next: to publish, or not. One way around this would be to transform the report into a “communication” from its President, Vitor Caldeira. In practice, this would amount to the report’s abandonment.

Commission responsibility diluted

Whatever the outcome, the executive’s sensitivity on the subject is another symptom of inability to deal with the immigration challenge.

Dimitri Avramopoulos, the Commissioner for Migration, whose Directorate General has theoretically been managing immigration since the end of 2014, is effectively not in direct charge of the issue, as he is superseded by three Juncker Commission Vice-Presidents. The Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, Johannes Hahn, also regularly takes responsibility for immigration questions.

“This once again raises the question of who does what in this Commission. The fact that the Commission works by subject and in groups of Commissioners can dilute its responsibility. We don’t know who decides what and who is responsible,” a Commission source said. 

Vitor Caldeira, the president of the European Court of Auditors, said on 11 January, “We have an ongoing audit on migration spending in the Southern Mediterranean and Eastern Neighbourhood countries. The preliminary observations are currently undergoing the adversarial procedure and, taking account of the Committee’s high-level of interest in this topic at the current time, will be finalised as soon as possible.”

As the EU's independent external auditor, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) looks after the interests of EU taxpayers. It does not have legal powers, but works to improve the European Commission's management of the EU budget and reports on EU finances.

As the European Commission’s website states:

To be effective, the Court must be independent of the institutions and bodies it audits. To this end, it is free to decide on:

  • What it will audit
  • Jow to do this
  • How & when to present its findings

The Court's audit work focuses mainly on the European Commission – the main body responsible for implementing the EU budget. But it also works closely with national authorities, because the Commission manages most EU funds (around 80%) jointly with them.

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