The European Union has been pursuing a dream, and in doing so, it has created a ballooning superstructure of governance manned by 41,000 bureaucrats and mostly unelected politicians. In 2011, they spent €129 billion that had been obtained from member states and their taxpayers. But now, the European Court of Auditors released its audit report for that year—a damning document that outlines how up to 4.8% of the EU budget had seeped through the cracks without ever reaching its target.
Already, the EU is under fire. As member governments are tightening the belts of their people to get deficits under control, and as austerity measures are tearing into healthcare benefits, wages, pensions, and safety nets, and as living standards are being hammered to smithereens, the EU government demands another budget increase.
It’s going to be quite a sight when the 27 member states have to sit down around the negotiating table on November 22 and 23 to cobble together a budget compromise for the next seven years. Some of them want the budget to be cut, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has to quell a conservative rebellion in the House of Commons, threatened to veto the budget if it isn’t. France threatened with a veto, but in the opposite direction: it wants its beloved agricultural subsidies to survive intact. And Denmark threatened with a veto if it doesn’t get a juicy rebate.
So the audit report came in the nick of time. It concluded that, overall, payments were “materially affected” by error and that supervisory and control systems for payments were only “partially effective.” The numbers were stunning: 44% of all transactions were “affected by material error,” and anywhere from 3.0% to 4.8% of the entire budget was unaccounted for, with 3.9% being the “most likely error rate” (MLE).
The worst offender in percentage terms was the policy group, Rural Development, Environment, Fisheries, and Health, which spent €13.8 billion. A cool 7.7% of it dissipated into the atmosphere.
The largest policy group, the Agricultural Guarantee Fund, handed out €43.8 billion in subsidies to farmers and landowners and lost track of 2.9% of it.
Regional Policy, Energy, and Transport, the second largest policy group, spent €33.4 billion, and a blistering 6.0% remained unaccounted for.
Research and Other Internal Policies spent €10.6 billion, of which 3.0% disappeared along the way.
Employment and Social Affairs spent €10.1 billion, with 2.2% not reaching its target.
These policy groups with their deficient controls and “material errors” spent 87.6% of the EU budget. The accounts of the rest of the policy groups, responsible for 12.4% of the outlays, were deemed “free from material error.”
There were also problems on the revenue side. Though much of the revenue was collected with an iron fist from member states, there were other sources, such as “Fines and Penalties” imposed on companies. The rules stipulate that the European Commission has to “enforce the recovery of amounts receivable by any available means.” But the Court found that in 57% of the cases that were in arrears, the Commission had been lackadaisical in its collection efforts.
In its rebuttal, the Commission claimed that enforcing recovery “at any price could have irreparable consequences and destroy or make bankrupt companies that are subject to fines.” And so it prefers “negotiating with the companies.” Companies prefer that too—negotiating being cheaper than paying. But are 57% of the companies that have to pay fines really this close to the edge that the fines would kick them over it? Or are the fines so harsh, and the rules they’re trying to enforce so intrusive, that the Commission doesn’t want to enforce them? Or is it just bureaucratic oversight?
The unelected but powerful Commission, which is ultimately responsible for the implementation of the EU budget, knows how to defend itself. It was the Court’s 18th annual report in a row that criticized the Commission for its shortcomings in controlling the money flows. With its bland jargon, the Court pointed at the infamous black holes where billions sink from view every year without trace—because entities across the continent have perfected the art of siphoning off the money. The audit results for 2011 were worse than 2010 when 36% of all transactions were “affected by material error,” and when 3.7% of the moneys disappeared along the way. However, some years were much worse. In 2006 for example, 7% of the EU budget seeped through the cracks.