The proposed changes of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) will not be sufficient to make its investigations significantly more effective, according to an Opinion published today by the European Court of Auditors. In addition, while the proposal reflects well the principles of co-operation between OLAF and the future European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), certain issues could hamper effective collaboration, say the auditors. An Opinion on the EU anti-fraud programme for 2021-2027 is also being published today.
The key objectives of the European Commission’s proposal are to adapt OLAF’s operations in light of the establishment of the EPPO and to improve OLAF’s effectiveness.
Timeliness and the recovery of funds are major challenges for OLAF’s investigations, the auditors point out. They welcome the limited number of targeted measures in the proposal, including OLAF’s new mandate on VAT fraud, admissibility of collected evidence and access to bank account information. However, the auditors recommend that OLAF’s investigations be reviewed by the Court of Justice to ensure that procedural safeguards have been adhered to. Overall, the proposal does not solve the issues surrounding the effectiveness of OLAF’s administrative investigations, they warn. The Commission recognises this too, but a schedule for further reform of OLAF and a clear identification of issues to be addressed are both currently lacking.
“Increasing the effectiveness of its investigations remain challenging issues for OLAF”, said Eva Lindström, the Member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the Opinion. “As it stands, the proposed reform of OLAF does not guarantee that the protection of the EU financial interests will be effectively strengthened”.
As regards OLAF and the EPPO, the auditors note that the proposal does well in reflecting the principles governing their future relations in terms of close cooperation, exchange of information, complementarity and non-duplication of work. However, they also found certain weaknesses in this respect. For instance, the proposal does not address OLAF’s role in investigating criminal offences affecting the EU’s financial interests when these concern both Member States that participate in the EPPO and those that do not.
Given the proposal’s limitations, the auditors stress the need for further action. In the short term, the European Commission should reconsider OLAF’s role and responsibilities in combating fraud in EU spending. To this end, the auditors recommend giving OLAF a strategic and oversight role in EU anti-fraud actions. In the medium term, the Commission should evaluate the co-operation between OLAF and the EPPO and, where appropriate, propose further legislative actions to enhance the EU’s fight against offences affecting its financial interests.
At the same time, the European Court of Auditors also published an Opinion on the plans for the next EU anti- fraud programme.
The Commission’s proposed 2021-2027 EU anti-fraud programme supports cooperation between Member States to protect the EU’s financial interests. Projects include training and IT systems used to report detected (fraudulent and non-fraudulent) irregularities involving EU funds.
The auditors question the programme’s value added and point out a risk of overlaps and lack of synergies between programmes funding similar actions, such as the Customs programme. They also consider that there is a need for more specific and measurable objectives with robust enough evaluation indicators, as well as clearer eligibility rules and clarifications regarding Member States’ co-financing contributions.
Credit: Damijan Fišer – curia.europa.eu