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16th Oct 2021

EU bleeding untold billions to fraud

  • Ten EU states bothered to report fewer than 10 suspected fraud cases (Photo: Alessandro Marotta)

Over €6bn of EU taxpayers' money was stolen by criminals in recent years and over €130m is still being lost each year, EU auditors have warned.

Those were the stark figures in a report on EU budget fraud by the European Court of Auditors, the bloc's financial watchdog, on Thursday (10 January).

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  • EU states indicted just 137 suspects and dismissed 171 cases (Photo: bundesbank.de)

Fraudsters stole at least €8.8bn from the EU budget between 2002 an 2016, but EU institutions clawed back just €2.6bn, or one third of it, the report said.

They stole another €391m in 2017, according to Olaf, the EU's principal anti-fraud agency, with the vast majority of theft in the areas of EU aid to poor regions and fisheries.

But the actual figures are likely to be much higher because "the scale of fraud is underreported", Thursday's report said.

"The [European] Commission lacks comprehensive information on the scale ... of fraud. Its official statistics on detected fraud are not complete," the report said.

The lost EU money aside, most of the fraud suspects are also evading justice even in those cases that come to light.

More than 540 cases should have gone to court between 2009 and 2016, Olaf had said.

But to date, member states have indicted just 137 suspects and dismissed 171 cases, mostly due to "insufficient evidence".

Part of the problem is that member states do not report all dodgy cases to Olaf.

Under the rules, they do not even have to monitor EU payments worth less than €10,000, even though many EU grants to farmers fall below that threshold.

Ten EU states bothered to report fewer than10 suspected fraud cases between 2007 and 2013, Thursday's report noted.

But some of those who reported the fewest, such as Bulgaria, Greece, and Hungary, were the EU's most high-risk states on corruption, the EU auditors said.

The commission has developed an IT platform, called Arachne, for "identifying the riskiest projects and beneficiaries" of EU funds, but Germany and Greece do not bother to use it. Poland and Spain hardly use it either.

No central risks assessment

Whoever is to blame, the current set up leaves EU officials in the dark when they sign cheques for farmers in, say, Slovakia, or for new bridges in, say, Kosovo.

"Currently, fraud risks are assessed at DG level," Thursday's report said, referring to directors-generals (DGs) - the 37 men and women who run the EU commission's various departments.

"No central fraud risk assessment is carried out for the commission as a whole ... they [the DGs] do not use other information coming from external sources, such as national crime statistics or official government reports, or analyses and reports by NGOs," the EU auditors said.

DGs and member states can bar known fraudsters from EU contracts in an EU database called EDES, the auditors noted.

But the "debarment system" excluded just 19 entities over the past two and a half years, even though there were 820 suspected EU fraud cases in 2016 alone.

That kind of performance "limits the deterrent impact of this system", the auditors said.

"More drive and leadership is needed in the EU to take real action against fraud in EU spending," the auditors' report, which was non-binding, added.

Looking ahead to the next European Commission, the EU should "ensure that strategic fraud risk management and fraud prevention would be clearly referred to in the portfolio of one commissioner", the auditors said.

The EU needed "a robust fraud reporting system, providing information on the scale, nature and root causes to fraud", the financial watchdog said.

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