UK media – for example the Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Times – yet again reported that the European Court of Auditors (ECA) has not signed off the EU accounts. Some media -this time including the Daily Telegraph – claim that UK taxpayers will be liable to pay back GBP 800 million. Both statements are simply false.
The Court did in fact sign off as accurate the EU’s accounts for 2012 – as it has done each year since 2007. It stated this clearly in its press release http://www.eca.europa.eu/en/Pages/AR_2012.aspx.
The ECA (not the European Commission) was so concerned by the flagrant inaccuracy of so many reports that it tweeted Mail online and other media in UK and beyond to request changes @EUAuditorsECA
The ECA annual report tracks the amount of errors that affect financial transactions under the EU budget against a stringent set of rules and procedures.
Many media neglect to emphasise that – while the Court makes clear the Commission also has more work to do – most of the errors take place at national level, including frequently in the UK, and concern decentralised programmes like agriculture and regional funding rather than money managed centrally in Brussels. Member States are responsible for managing 80% of EU funds.
They fail to mention that where errors have serious budgetary effects, the Commission succeeds in clawing most of the money back so it can then be used for other projects: about £3.8 billion/EUR 4.4 billion in 2012.
So the fact that the error rate for 2012 is 4.8% (compared to 3.9% for 2011) does not mean – as the newspapers claim, despite having the situation fully explained to them – that the extrapolated amount of money from the EU annual budget total is written off.
Nor does this mean that the UK (or any other member state) will have to pay back any amount into a bank account in Brussels.
Neither does the fact that a project has not fully adhered to the procedures as it should have, always signify that the money is wasted or that the main project objectives were not achieved.
For example, if member state authorities spending EU money on a new bridge did not properly follow public procurement rules – that is not acceptable. But it does not mean that the bridge is not built or the money is wasted.
These Court of Auditors reports and the increase in the error rate this year, after a long period of improvement, are serious matter, something which the Commission fully recognises. It has in the past seven years endeavoured to reduce the number of errors by introducing modern accounting practices, tighter rules on EU spending, stricter supervision, and stronger control measures.
Under the next seven-year budget 2014-2020 the EU will implement further reforms http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-13-947_en.htm to simplify the system and introduce even more stringent rules to encourage all Member States – including the UK – to take more care about the way they spend EU funds.
For example, the Commission has had to claw back from UK nearly EUR 300 million in corrections to UK administered EU agriculture spending over the last three years. There have also been significant errors in regional policy –payments to UK programmes have had to be interrupted several times.
As a reader put it on one of the newspapers’ blog threads – this is not the EU wasting member states’ money, but member states misspending European money.
That is certainly a very simplistic summary.
But it is perhaps less simplistic than much of the media reporting of the ECA report which has yet again seen newspapers throwing incorrect figures around to kindle public outrage.