Paul Stephenson presented his research on the scrutiny of EU budget implementation at a 2-day workshop at the European University Institute in Florence on 23-24 February. The event, held at the Robert Schuman Centre, was opened with a keynote speech by former Commissioner (1995-2004) and Italian prime minister (2011-2013), Mario Monti, and closed by EU Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Cretu. Other speakers included the former president of the European Court of Auditors, Vitor Caldeira, Rolf Alter from the OECD, and head of the Evaluation Unit at DG REGIO, Mariana Hristecheva. The workshop was organised by Alfredo de Feo who spent 35 years in the European Parliament, and Miguel Maduro, former Portuguese minister for regional development.
The new Better Regulation agenda (2015) placed a greater emphasis on regulatory evaluation across the whole policy cycle, with an emphasis beyond ex ante impact assessment and a sole focus on EU law, to considerations of ex post impact assessment and policy evaluation – in short, what did the law produce, and were the objectives met through budgetary expenditure.
His presentation looked at the scrutiny challenge faced by the European Parliament in terms of input, capacity and process, as well as the way in which it uses audit findings and recommendations from the European Court of Auditors. It acknowledged the contribution that the EP’s Research Service is no making to scrutiny through the provision of rolling checklists that monitor the evaluation outputs of various stakeholders.
Stephenson called for more comparative analysis of parliamentary engagement in ex post evaluation, more micro-level research into budgetary control at committee level, and more explicit indicators of how the deliberation of ex post evaluations of policy and programme spending actually impacts upon the redesign of law and policy spending programmes.
Bringing in academic perspectives, he considered how Vivien Schmidt’s work on throughput legitimacy might be a useful tool for conceiving of scrutiny as a stage between the delivery of outputs and the consideration of their value and the results, thus distinguishing between actual and deliberated output.
In her closing speech, Commissioner Cretu spoke about simplification as a priority for her mandate, alongside ex ante conditionality upon the member states. In this regard, the Commission takes a sectorial approach to ensure that the member states have road maps and strategies in place to guide how they use regional development funds. She asserted that ‘better regulation rhymes with simplification’, meaning making application procedures easier and reducing the number of indicators used by the member states when measuring results.
The Commissioner also stressed the difficulties for the Commission in terms of subsidiarity to ensure ‘European added value’, giving the example of an application to build a 5-star hotel in Crete using ERDF. Because the member states can decide what to spend certain funds on below 50 million euros, the Commission can only discourage poor application for funding and look to the member states to reconsider, but ultimately in some many cases cannot deny funding.
There is a more widespread problem of ‘absorption for absorption’s sake’, where money is not spent wisely. That said, she praised Portugal for managing to absorb all its EU co-financing a year before the end of the 2007-13 programming period. She also congratulated the Court of Auditors for its work auditing cohesion policy, glad to see that error rates are lower, and that the main errors in spending are no longer public procurement and state aid infringements, but occur due to confusion over eligibility rules.
Communicating the results of EU spending to citizens is still a challenge. The Commissioner quoted the Athens metro (95% paid for by European funds) and recent investments at Manchester University where local stakeholders were simply unaware of where significant financing had come from. The current irony is that regional policy was introduced in 1975 at the demand of the British, given weaknesses in its economy. Yet now, the British will leave the EU, while what we now call cohesion policy has grown to be the largest area of budgetary spending and one where we can arguably get up close and derive, in her words, ‘the most accountability’.