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25th Jul 2021

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EU bodies dodge questions on secret VW loan report

  • The building in Brussels which houses the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) (Photo: Fred Romero)

The European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have refused to answer detailed questions about the demand from the European Ombudsman to publish an Olaf report about a €400m EIB loan Volkswagen Group (VW) received through deception.

On Monday (1 April), the Ombudsman published the outcome of a one-year inquiry into a complaint filed by EUobserver, which had requested to see the Olaf report in the summer of 2017, through the EU's access to documents regulation.

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  • Once a year, Olaf opens its doors to the public. Olaf is much more secretive when it comes to a report into how Volkswagen deceived the European Investment Bank (Photo: OLAF)

Emily O'Reilly argued that the EIB's decision not to publish constituted "maladministration", and called for disclosure of the report, the recommendations Olaf made to EIB to prevent future misuse of loans, and two internal EIB notes.

The report, written by Olaf and sent to EIB in mid-2017, said that VW had misled the EIB when it applied for the €400m loan that was supposed to be used to reduce emissions - while in fact the German carmaker had been cheating tests to pretend its high-level emissions were in line with EU standards.

The EIB did not comment on the record, but let an EIB official send a statement on condition of anonymity.

"According to the Ombudsman's statute, the EIB shall reply to the EO [European Ombudsman] with a detailed opinion by 29 June 2019," the official wrote on Monday.

"As this stage, the EIB is not in a position to comment on the EO's recommendations. The EIB is thoroughly assessing them with a view to providing its reasoned opinion to the EO within the statutory timeframe," the statement concluded.

Separately, Olaf sent a general statement and refused to answer detailed questions.

"Olaf's final reports are subject to strict rules of confidentiality and are therefore not made public by Olaf," the Olaf press office said in the emailed statement.

"This is in order to protect the legitimate rights of the persons concerned, ensure the confidentiality of Olaf investigations and of possible follow-up in administrative and judicial proceedings, as well as to protect personal data."

The Ombudsman, which is an independent body and whose team had access to the documents, had concluded that in this particular case, there was no risk in publication.

Olaf did not answer a specific question about that conclusion.

The Olaf press office also claimed that it was up to the recipients of their reports to decide whether to disclose them, saying "the decision on protecting the confidentiality of the Olaf reports, and implicitly on any possible disclosure, belongs in the first place to the authorities who had received it".

Olaf contradicts itself

But that is not how Olaf apparently behaved in its communication to the EIB, according to the Ombudsman's findings.

"The EIB had requested Olaf's opinion on disclosure of the report. The EIB said that Olaf had expressed strong opposition to the (even partial) disclosure of the report," the Ombudsman said.

"The bank stated that it could not ignore the formal opinion of Olaf and indicated that the EIB depended on Olaf's cooperation properly to identify any information which would undermine Olaf's investigative function if disclosed."

Replying to Olaf's email, EUobserver pointed out that it was contradictory for Olaf to say that it was up to the recipients of reports to decide whether to publish them - but at the same time bilaterally express strong opposition to disclosure.

"Olaf cannot comment further," it said in a reply.

NGO pressure

The non-governmental organisation Bankwatch criticised Olaf's statement, saying it was a "mismatch" vis-a-vis the Ombudsman assessment.

"Olaf undertakes the investigation within the scope of its competences and thus is entirely responsible for the content of the investigation and its disclosure," said Bankwatch campaigner Anna Roggenbuck.

"It tries to get away with the responsibility for disclosure of its own report from its own investigation," she added.

The EIB is one of the institutions Bankwatch monitors, and it has been scrutinising EIB loans to VW since the Dieselgate scandal broke in 2015.

Olaf had previously denied Bankwatch access to the report.

The NGO will now try again with a new access to documents request to Olaf.

"In her decision, the Ombudsman clearly indicated that her decision would be the same in case a request for disclosure would be addressed directly to Olaf," said Roggenbuck.

"She was clearly stating that both EIB and Olaf should disclose the investigation report if requested. This is why we think we may be successful this time," she noted.

A majority in the European Parliament also wants the documents published.

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