Una mirada a la renovación de CONT (Comité de Control Presupuestario del Parlamento Europeo) y sus implicaciones para la gestión financiera en la UE

Este artículo de María Luisa Sánchez-Barrueco y Paul Stephenson fue publicado originalmente en la revista del Tribunal de Cuentas Europeo, en inglés, disponible en este link

Armed its various types of audit report, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) enjoys a privileged audience with the discharge authority. Since 1977, following the 1975 Brussels Treaty, the European Parliament (EP) has been vested with the power to grant discharge to the Commission, although the final decision is taken upon a non-binding Council recommendation.

In the European Parliament, the Committee on Budgetary Control (hereinafter, CONT) is responsible for holding the managers of the EU budget to political account. Although over two thirds of the EU budget is managed at the national level, national authorities are not subject to the political dimension of financial accountability: they cannot be questioned by and are not answerable before the EP. CONT’s discharge reports represent the fundamental basis upon which the parliament’s plenary takes the decision to grant discharge. In seeking to carry out its core task, CONT draws on various sources of evidence, including witness accounts, data collected via own initiative control missions, and crucially, the ECA’s annual reports. Given the wealth of information that can be taken into account by CONT, the EP’s ‘think-tank’, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) plays an import role in collecting, digesting and synthesising relevant data sources on behalf of MEPs. This includes annual audit reports and special reports. When ECA reports are presented to CONT, they are assigned to one or several MEPs for follow-up, leading in most cases to a CONT committee resolution.

Taking stock

ECA auditors keen to take stock of CONT’s work during the last legislature might do well to take a look at the hugely insightful ‘Balance Sheet of Activities during the 8th Legislative Term (July 2014-June 2019)’ available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/163425/CONT_Draft%20balance%20sheet_8th%20term.pdf.

As the reports states (p.3), ‘in analysing the performance of the different spending areas, the Committee continued its fruitful cooperation with the Court of auditors and cooperated increasingly with the specialised committees of the Parliament in charge of the relevant policy areas’. Moreover, ‘the Committee further intensified the interinstitutional cooperation, notably with OLAF’.

CONT’s workload and output has been impressive in the last 5 years. As further stated in the publication (p.3), ‘During the 8th Legislative Term the Committee adopted 324 reports, 64 opinions and produced 151 working documents, mainly in the context of the discharge procedure.

As well as the joint meetings held with other standing (policy) committees in the EP to discuss EP special reports, CONT held 18 public hearings, carried out 17 missions across the EU and held 35 hearings in the context of various nomination procedures. In addition, with the support of Policy Department D of the EP, it held 19 workshops and commissioned 25 external studies, including our very own (with Hartmut Aden) on the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=IPOL_STU(2019)621806

The new CONT committee

Following the recent European elections in May 2019, a new CONT committee will now press ahead in its work, dealing extensively with the ECA during the 2019-2024 period. Elections brought about significant changes to the composition of CONT, and taking due account of them might help the ECA in foreseeing what lies ahead, and most notably, in anticipating the different political sensitivities its reports might face.

30 MEPs have been attached to CONT for the IX legislature, although this composition will undergo slight changes if and when Brexit is implemented. As such it is a middle-sized committee, compared with others such as LIBE, which has implications in terms of the size of its committee representation whenever the EP negotiates with the Council.

Former CONT chair Ingeborg Grässle (CDU) has gone. She served as MEP for three full parliamentary terms and was always attached to CONT, first as a regular MEP, then coordinator of the EPP group, then CONT chair between 2014 and 2019. Grässle established a reputation as an independent and vocal advocate for financial accountability. Arguably, she was not the typical CDU politician and did not bite her tongue when it came to delicate issues concerning the management of EU funds at the national level. Some may have sighed in relief to see her go, but certainly not those who advocate greater accountability and transparency of EU institutions. The new CONT chair, Monika Hohlmeier (Bavarian CSU), follows in Mrs. Grässle’s footsteps as an EPP member EPP and comes from a long family line of CDU/CSU politicians.

What does the new CONT committee look like? The first figure that strikes the external observer is 56.7%, that is, the share of MEPs who are new to the European Parliament. The rate of renewal is high this time, which will surely impact the work of the committee. While some 16% of MEPs have served for a previous term, 20% of them have spent 10 years at the EP, and for two members (the Polish, Czarnecki and the German, Pieper) this is their fourth term – so in terms of institutional memory and assuring continuity in committee practice, one might arguably look to them.

From a geographic perspective, it is quite striking that as many as 13 Member States are not actually represented in CONT: Estonia, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Denmark, Sweden, Croatia, Portugal, Greece. By contrast, other Member States have several CONT members: 5 from Germany, 4 from Italy, 3 from France, 2 from Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and the United Kingdom. Though there may be substitute members for the committee, one must nonetheless ponder whether this is really a desirable composition if we want all soon-to-be 27 Member States to take a keen interest in financial accountability when only half are represented? What does this say about democratic representation? Yes, checks can be made in the plenary – CONT setting the agenda of what the plenary will and won’t discuss – but it raises concerns about geographic representation, and as such, given the non-representation of many member states in the committee, about geographic fair spread and the degree to which MEPs of certain Member States are properly engaged in scrutiny, and by extension, informed about financial control and audit within the context of deliberating policy performance. Many Member States without MEPs in CONT are net recipients of large amounts of Structural Funds – and in these cases, who is feeding back directly to their relevant constituencies?

From a demographic perspective, some 20% members are in their 30s, 20% in their 40s, 43% in their 40s, and 13.3% in their 60s. The youngest CONT member is 30 (UK, Heaver) and the most senior is 70 years old (PL, Legutko). From a gender perspective, the committee is by no means sufficiently representative, with only 36.7% comprising women (the number of women MEPs increased from 36% to a new ‘high’ of 39%) (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/01/record-number-of-women-become-meps-but-men-still-dominate).

From a political ideology perspective, the current CONT committee faithfully reflects the rather fragmented EP composition that resulted from the 2019 elections. The EPP and S&D are equally represented, with 20% each, whereas the rest of political groups have 13.3% (RENEW, the former ALDE), 10% (ECR, Greens, I&D) and 6,7% (EUL/NGL and non-attached).

Implications of MEP origin and office for financial accountability

From a financial accountability perspective, it is relevant to consider CONT members according to whether or not their state of origin is a net contributor to or net recipient of the EU budget. Taking into account the figures made available by the Commission on member state contributions as a percentage of GDP (https://ec.europa.eu/budget/graphs/revenue_expediture.html), then some 60% of CONT members have been elected in states who pay more into the EU budget than they receive. This might seem to be a good indicator that sufficient relevance will be given to ensuring the proper accountability of EU funds. However, this figure must be qualified after looking at the top and bottom ends of the scale. Considering net contributors and recipients in absolute terms, the top tier of net contributors (Germany, UK, France, Italy, Netherlands) make up 20% of CONT, just as for the top tier of net recipients (Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Greece and Poland).

Another dimension worth looking at is whether the MEPs represent parties in government or in opposition. The balance swings gently towards parties in opposition, with just 43% of CONT members from government parties, perhaps a sign of the shifting political landscape across the EU. How these figures will affect the political stance of MEPs is uncertain at present. In principle, it seems safe to hypothesize that parties in government from net contributing Member States – with a lot at stake financially and politically by way of budgetary transfers to the EU – might be more inclined to impose tougher controls on financial management. In so doing they might come up against their opposition parties who will be even more vociferous when it comes to ensuring there are appropriate controls in place to prevent financial mismanagement and corruption. In this regard, CONT’s two MEPs from Romania and the one from Hungary represent the government, whereas the one from Bulgaria opposes it. Let’s see how active they are!

If we look at the educational background of CONT members, there is variation in their academic disciplines. MEPs have degrees in business, economics and administration (20%), law (16,7%), political science (10%), and communication and journalism (10%). Most CONT members have come to the EP from national politics at national/regional/local level. By way of exception, there is a former commissioner (Cretu), a former head of Transparency International, Germany (Freund), and a former public prosecutor from Italy (Chinnici). With the newly established EPPO set to be up and running in mid-2020 through differentiated integration (22 Member States only), it’s reassuring to know that the committee will have some insight into public prosecution at the national level as the scope of CONT’s mandate broadens to take in another new EU body whose work it will need to monitor and scrutinise. Ingeborg Grässle would surely be pleased to see the further institutionalisation of financial control and developments which should ultimately benefit CONT in its quest to protect the EU’s financial interests, a task it has undertaken since its early days as a sub-committee of Budgets, when Heinrich Aigner (chair of BUDG) pushed for the establishment ECA.

Of course, any parliament would not be complete without the odd outsider and the CONT committee in the IX Legislature is no exception with both a cabaret artist and a twice-convicted advocate of the legalisation of marijuana.

  • María-Luisa Sánchez-Barrueco (University of Deusto) is Senior Lecturer in Law at Deusto Law School, Bilbao. She is the author of various articles on the ECA, including: Sánchez-Barrueco, María-Luisa (2015) ‘The Contribution of the European Court of Auditors to EU Financial Accountability in Times of Crisis’, Romanian Journal of European Affairs, 15(1): 70-85.
  • Paul Stephenson (Maastricht University) is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. His work on the ECA includes: Stephenson, P. (2017) ‘The European Parliament’s use of the European Court of Auditors’ special reports in the scrutiny of EU budgetary performance’. In: De Feo, A. and Laffan, B. (ed.) Scrutiny of EU Policies: contributions to the workshop organised by the RSCAS, 27 February 2017, Florence: European University Institute, 44-51. Available free at: http://cadmus.eui.eu/handle/1814/48867

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