Auditors criticise European Commission’s “weak” response to financial crisis

26 Jan 16

The European Commission's response to the financial crisis of the late 2000s was "generally weak", with measures not applied consistently and lacking in thorough scrutiny, auditors have said.

A total of eight European Union member states sought financial assistance from the commission when the crisis first hit the EU in 2008/09 and subsequently the eurozone.

Seven years on, the European Court of Auditors has looked in detail at the way the financial assistance programme was applied in five states: Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Portugal and Ireland.

In their report, issued today, the auditors concluded that, in broad terms, the objective of the programme had been met. Deficits were reduced, structural deficits improved, conditions were complied with and the programmes had prompted further reforms.

This response, despite the commission's lack of institutional expertise and preparedness for the crisis, was itself an achievement.

However, the court also highlighted a series of weaknesses and inconsistencies, which plagued the programme. This included different approaches to the member states seeking assistance.

The review found that conditions for assistance were less stringent in some cases, despite the countries being in similar economic circumstances. Structural reforms required by member states were not always in proportion to the problems they faced, and some countries' deficit targets were relaxed more than the economic situation would appear to justify.

Other failings included weak monitoring. The commission used accrual-based deficit targets, which meant success could only be observed after certain time had elapsed, so the commission could not report with certainty on whether deficits had been met.

There was no external review of the calculations used by the commission and work was not adequately scrutinised. In addition, the ECA said the commission used a "rather cumbersome" spreadsheet-based forecasting tool, while documentation was not geared towards reviewing decisions that had already been taken.

Recordkeeping improved as programmes progressed, although the auditors identified some key documents continued to be missing.

Baudilio Tomé Muguruza, the ECA member responsible for the report, said: "The effects of the crisis are still being felt today, and the resulting loan programmes have since run into billions of euros. So it is imperative that we learn from mistakes, which were made."

He told Public Finance International this was the most important part of today's report.

"We ask the commission to strengthen all the procedures in terms of forecasting, quality review and documentation and invite them to develop a network inside the commission in order to mobilise expertise and also to look for procedures that can help them bring in external expertise," he said.

If implemented, the recommendations would allow the commission to better respond to future crises, he added. Other tools and instruments, such as those facilitating banking union, would also be strengthened.

In response to the report, the commission said: "The court clearly recognises that the programmes met their primary objectives: The countries in question returned to the market and to economic growth. Indeed some of these countries now have among the highest growth rates in Europe.

"The audit focused on process, decision-making and record-keeping aspects of the commission's programme management, rather than the economic outcomes of the programmes. Most of the shortcomings identified have since been fixed: indeed, the report itself reflects the substantial progress that occurred during the programme years."

However, the commission said it would take the auditors' recommendations seriously and consider making further changes.

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