Back in Brussels


It’s a dark, cold, grey morning when we arrive in Brussels. The daunting offices of the European Commission loom over us like a giant freezer chest. I always wonder whether they are a metaphor for the impersonal nature of EU institutions. It’s not the first time we’ve been in Brussels. The Court of Audit regularly audits the Netherlands’ use of EU funds and other EU-related matters. 

This time, we are meeting staff at the Commission who are responsible for the corona recovery fund and audits. We are also discussing finances, energy and other topics with specialists from the Dutch permanent representation. We have a healthy but economical lunch with the Dutch ambassador to the EU. For the same thrifty reasons, he has turned the thermostat down a couple of degrees. This obviously meets with our approval; the Court of Audit is also taking measures to cut its energy bill. And we talk to the European Commission’s Dutch Director-General for the Budget.

At no less than €750 billion, the corona recovery fund is a very hot topic. Yesterday the talk had been about approving Hungary’s plans, and it’s far from certain that approval will lead to payment. The corona fund has been established despite fierce opposition from the Netherlands. What makes it so special in Brussels is that payment is linked to the achievement of certain goals, such as sustainability and digitalisation, or reforms, such as a new pension law. This is a completely different approach from that taken by the traditional funds. The latter are far less concerned with the achievement of goals and much more with financial management. Financial management of the new corona recovery fund relies mainly on audits in the member states. In the Netherlands, funds are first taken to the central government budget before they are allocated. Financial management and the regularity of government expenditure are automatically checked by the government’s internal audit service, with the Court of Audit acting as the independent external auditor. For member states like the Netherlands, financial management in the new approach will not be a major concern. But what about other EU member states? Can we rely on their audits? The European Court of Auditors is a feared institution and its opinion on such matters carries some weight in Brussels.

We also discuss our recent audit on the use of EU grants in the Netherlands. We found that the funds spent in the Netherlands on eligible projects had definite added value but the money could be awarded more efficiently. We also gave examples of unnecessarily high administrative burdens. We are pleased to confirm that the report has been translated into English. It’s a good example of how we at the Netherlands Court of Audit have an eye not only for regularity but also for efficiency.

It's still dark, cold and grey when we leave Brussels at the end of the day. The train leaves precisely on time. That’s an example the Netherlands would do well to follow.”