Saturday

18th Jan 2020

Opinion

How the 'EU's Bank' fails to raise the bar on accountability

  • The HQ of the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg (Photo: Matt Tempest)

As the financial arm of the European Union, the European Investment Bank (EIB) likes to call itself the "EU Bank" and to publicly praise its environmental and social standards in comparison to other investment banks.

Nevertheless, over the last years, a dangerous setback on accountability and transparency has taken place at the EU Bank.

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Back in 2015, the EIB adopted a controversial transparency policy including significant exceptions to the disclosure of internal documents.

Setting in stone the possibility to keep secret internal investigations into irregularities such as corruption and maladministration, this policy has been used to sweep sensitive stories under the carpet.

For example, drawn into the Dieselgate scandal because of its allegedly misused loan to the Volkswagen Group, the EIB still refuses to disclose the critical report drafted by the European Anti-Fraud Office on the case.

On Tuesday (13 November), a new step backwards has been taken by the EIB.

During a meeting of its board of directors, a revised policy for the bank's complaints mechanism has been approved.

This decision concludes a lengthy revision process that saw civil society organisations raise numerous concerns over the bank's move to undermine the control function of its accountability body.

The complaints mechanism is a key tool for anyone affected by the projects financed by the EIB to seek remedy for harmful impacts.

From Luxembourg to Madagascar

Since its creation in 2008, it has been used by individuals and communities across the EU and beyond as the main channel to make their voices heard at the bank, from citizens in Madagascar threatened by the impact of a nickel mine, to residents in Spain denouncing the financial and environmental fiasco of the EIB-financed Castor Project.

But our analysis of the accountability architecture at the EIB shows that in practice, the complaint mechanism doesn't provide satisfactory results: indeed, its recommendations are not binding and its independence is jeopardised.

Holding a marginalised position within the bank, the mechanism lacks resources.

To our surprise, instead of trying to improve the current set-up of the complaints mechanism, the EIB has put it under further pressure, and used the revision of its policy and procedures to reduce its independence.

The new policy leaves room for the EIB staff and services to interfere with the complaints mechanism's decisions, thus further weakening its capacity to operate independently for those who need redress the most.

The interferences allowed by the policy could go as far as preventing the publication of reports that could potentially damage the reputation of the bank by exposing wrongdoings or lack of due diligence on projects.

This is extremely concerning for a public institution that invests public money and should apply the highest standards of transparency and accountability in its operations.

The EIB is the largest multilateral lender globally, lending more than EUR 70 billion per year all across Europe and the world.

Given this volume of operations, it is no surprise that some operations may bear problematic impacts from an environmental, social or even corruption perspective.

But one would expect that in such cases the institution would try to learn lessons to improve its policies, standards and practices, and prevent failures from happening again.

Instead, the EIB prefers hiding sensitive cases by limiting the mandate of its grievance mechanism.

Through several capital increases and its prominent role in the 'Juncker Plan', the bank has recently gained a stronger political profile, but its accountability framework has not evolved much.

For instance, there is room for the European Parliament, Commission and Court of Auditors to do much more to scrutinise EIB operations.

In 2018 the EIB celebrates its 60th anniversary, and as a watchdog NGO coalition monitoring its activities for more than a decade, we're convinced that fundamental reforms are needed to make it a more sustainable, transparent and democratic institution and ensure its operations benefit the citizens of the EU and beyond.

Xavier Sol is director of Counter Balance

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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