Preconceptions about the use of EU money

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Our first associations with the EU are rarely positive. Airports where planes will never land. Motorways from nowhere to nothing. Red tape and waste. Fraud.

Fortunately, the Netherlands Court of Audit has a long tradition of auditing the use of EU funds in the Netherlands. And we have found that they are spent in accordance with the rules and measures are taken to prevent their misuse. It is important the Dutch parliament knows this, even though the situation may be different in other EU countries. That is why we shifted the focus in our recent audit of the added value of EU grants in the Netherlands  from regularity to efficiency. What difference do EU grants make in the Netherlands? Is the money spent not only regularly but also efficiently and effectively? That is what the Court wanted to find out with the audit it published on 18 October 2022.

And what did we learn? Our preconceptions about the use of EU money are often nothing more than preconceptions.. EU grants are a source of added value for the concrete projects they fund in the Netherlands. Added value for farmers and for fishers and fish breeders who want to work more sustainably with new technology. Added value for children in asylum centres who want to play just like Dutch children. And added value to help asylum seekers return to their countries of origin. We know this because we asked 1,300 grant recipients whether EU money had been decisive for their projects. No fewer than 91% said EU grants had led to a faster start, a bigger project or better quality. To check their answers, we also asked 500 rejected grant applicants what had happened to their projects. Half said they had been abandoned and a third said they had been scaled down. 

I know from an audit of government grants that this is not a bad score. In June we published a report on the impact of the Housing Incentive
We concluded that it was uncertain whether the incentive had increased the number of new dwellings, speeded up construction work or boosted the construction of more affordable homes. And for more than 2 decades we have been finding all kinds of shortcomings in the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport’s use of grants. So think again about your preconceptions that EU money is wasted and the Dutch government does everything a lot better. The government sometimes thinks too highly of itself.

Does nothing ever go wrong with the efficient and effective use of EU grants in the Netherlands? Of course it does. EU grants generate added value for the projects they are spent on, but that doesn’t mean the money is spent on the most appropriate projects. That would require a thorough analysis of the problem being addressed. Sometimes analyses are made, sometimes they are not. And where they are made, they are not always used to optimise the allocation of grants. The European Social Fund is a positive exception. Grants are often allocated simply because they have always been allocated that way or they are split equally among the provinces, each getting a 12th of the total funding. Evaluations are often so badly timed and conclusions cannot be drawn on how projects can be improved. This could all be better. Unfortunately the ministers’ response to our report was procedural in nature. But there is work to be done. Not because the use of EU money in the Netherlands confirms our preconceptions but because it is public money from EU taxpayers that could be spent better for the benefit of Dutch citizens and businesses.

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