Thursday

21st Sep 2017

Parliament questions Solana accounts

The European Parliament on Thursday (23 April) decided to delay until November approval of the Council of the European Union's accounts for 2007, in a bid to gain more financial scrutiny over the bloc's main decision maker.

MEPs hope to gain momentum ahead of the June elections and scrap a "gentlemen's agreement" dating back to 1970, according to which the parliament does not look into the books of the Council, which are checked by the Court of Auditors and national experts.

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"That was 39 years ago, when the EU wasn't even called like that, with six member states, a non-elected parliament and way before security and defence policy. To think that it can be prolonged forever is ridiculous," said Danish MEP Soren Bo Sondergaard, who was the parliament's rapporteur for the 2007 EU accounts.

All EU institutions received a green light regarding the way they spent their budget in 2007, except for the Council, an administrative body in charge of organising EU summits, ministerial meetings, ambassadors and expert groups on various topics ranging from fisheries to security and defence.

His report was endorsed by a large majority of MEPs on Thursday, with 571 votes in favour, 41 against and 21 abstentions

If the Council continued to "ignore" the parliament and not submit formal answers to its requests, concerning alleged undisclosed accounts, the legislature could reject the 2007 accounts in November.

This would have "political consequences" for Javier Solana, the EU's top foreign policy chief and also secretary-general of the Council, as well as for future parliamentary debates on budgetary approvals, Mr Sondergaard told this website.

The MEP aims to win back his seat in the June election and stay on as rapporteur for the topic.

The only time the parliament previously rejected the accounts of an EU institution was in 1998, when MEPs refused to sign off the Jacques Santer commission's expenditures, leading to the resignation of the whole body amid serious corruption allegations.

In relation to the Council, however, there is a legal difference. The EU treaty says the parliament checks the accounts of the European Commission, but there is no mention of other EU institutions.

"The Council has nothing to hide and has always favoured transparency in its relation with the parliament on budgetary matters. The Council's budget is managed with the utmost rigour and prudence and is approved by the Court of Auditors and finance ministries of 27 member states," Mr Solana's spokeswoman, Christina Gallach, said.

Council absent from debate

MEPs were outraged at the absence of a Council representative in the plenary debate on Wednesday, which was delayed on purpose to have an EU presidency official present.

The absence was explained by the fact that "responsibility for the implementation of the budget is not a matter for the EU presidency, but for the council's general secretariat," Jan Sliva, spokesman for the Czech EU presidency told this website.

The Council, for its part, pointed to the disputed gentlemen's agreement, basing on which its stance that it could not formally respond to parliamentary requests related to budgetary issues.

Nevertheless, since 2005, the practice of an "informal exchange of views" between the Council's deputy secretary general and a delegation of the committee on budgetary control had been accepted and welcomed by the parliament, which was no longer the case this year, a Council press release states.

No 'black accounts'

The Council also rejected fiery allegations made by MEPs on Wednesday who during the full sitting of the house accused Mr Solana of having "black accounts" and illegally transferring money from interpretation to travel expenses.

Austrian independent MEP Hans Peter Martin called the Council "lazy" and "incompetent," claiming that a lot of ministers don't even attend the meetings and leave decision making to low-level officials.

MEPs insisted that the Council provide the EU legislature with official information and the possibility of looking into documents and papers.

The Council's budget, which amounted to €594 million in 2007, accounts for 0.5 percent of the EU's total budget and eight percent of the bloc's administrative expenditures.

According to the Council, more than half the money was used for paying the salaries and benefits of the 3,200 staff working in the Brussels-based headquarters.

Organising meetings took up some 21 percent of the budget. Most of the expenses are related to interpreting and national delegates travelling to these working group meetings - mostly attended by minor officials from national ministries.

The transfer of some €13 million from interpretation to travel expenses was approved by the Court of Auditors and finance ministers of member states, the Council points out, arguing that it was aimed at saving unspent money.

Transparency initiative welcomed

The parliament's initiative to scrap the gentlemen's agreement was welcomed by Open Europe, a London-based free-market and eurosceptic think-tank.

"MEPs should be credited for finally trying to end the charade whereby the parliament turns a blind eye to the expenditure of the council," Stephen Booth, an analyst at Open Europe, told EUobserver.

"It's about time the parliament took its role as watchdog over the EU's budget seriously. The more steps to bring the EU's opaque budgetary practices from behind closed to doors out into the open, the better," he added.

A new agreement between council and parliament could be negotiated after the new legislature takes office following the June elections.

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