BRUSSELS - An MEP tasked with looking at how EU money is spent in the bloc's 24 independent agencies has caused a stir with her preliminary findings on conflicts of interest and questions about whether the agencies are useful.
With a total budget of €1.5 billion, some of the 24 independent agencies have real powers such as certifying chemicals in use in the EU or establishing binding aviation standards, others a purely advisory role on issues ranging from gender studies to health at work.
They were all established because member states decided so - most of them in the past ten years. Apart from checking how they manage their accounts, Romanian MEP Monica Macovei - a former justice minister and anti-corruption campaigner - says the very existence of some of these agencies should be questioned when they only produce reports.
"The main objective of this report is to have a clear picture of the usefulness of these agencies from a cost-efficiency point of view and to start the discussion if we really need all these agencies at a time of austerity and budget cuts," she told a press conference on Wednesday (29 February).
Four of the agencies - dealing with food safety, aviation safety, chemicals registration and medicines registration - are also on her radar due as they have staff recruited directly from industry.
With agencies claiming that experts outside the industry are hard to find, Macovei during a heated debate earlier on Wednesday insisted that this is no excuse for potentially endangering public health. If someone has worked for a company, they should not be allowed to certify the products of that company, says the deputy.
The European Court of Auditors is set to issue a report by the end of June on conflict of interests at these four agencies - the European Food Safety Authority based in Parma (Italy), the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki (Finland), the European Aviation Safety Agency in Cologne (Germany) and the London-based European Medicines Agency.
The European Parliament may not sign off their accounts for 2010 - which would scarcely affect their day-to-day business, but would trigger increased scrutiny and possible resignations. This happened in 2010 with the UK-based police training agency (Cepol) where EU funding was used to buy personal phones and furniture. Following the management change, Cepol this year was the only agency with zero accountancy errors, the Court of Auditors found.
In response to Macovei's draft report - which can still be changed by next Monday and has to be approved by the entire Parliament mid-May - EU agencies have written a joint letter deploring the "unduly negative tone" of the paper.
"Even if some weaknesses have been detected in the financial and budgetary management by individual agencies the allegations that they are potentially linked to fraud and corruption are in our view unfounded as no additional information is given that would feed that suspicion," the letter reads.
During Wednesday's debate, one of the agency directors - Jacqueline McGlade from the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency - said that if the reputation of her institution was tainted by the final form of the report, "it would have serious consequences for the EU reputation as a whole, just as it tries to establish itself as a world leader for the low carbon economy."
Macovei, however, seemed undeterred: "The reputation of the Union is not identical to the reputation of its agencies. Part of that reputation is also how we use the money. Maybe some agencies were created at a time when there was plenty of money. But we have to ask the question now if we need all these agencies with the same size and budget."