Covered-up fraud in Brussels is another reason why we’re right to have voted for Brexit

Covered-up fraud in Brussels is another reason why we’re right to have voted for Brexit

In Douglas Adams’ universe, Planet Earth’s demolition orders are put on display for people to object to – but on a different plant. In a cellar. Without lights, or stairs. In the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory. With a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”.

Getting hold of the Annual Activity Report of the Investigation and Disciplinary Committee of the European Commission (IDOC) is easier. You can put in a Freedom of Information request (FoI) to the European Commission to get a copy. You just need to know the Office exists in the first place, and that it prints an annual report, which you can ask for, because you won’t find any of this online. But at least there are no leopards.

The motive for the faux-transparency is plain once you do dig into it, as I have been doing with FoIs for several years now (some of the released documents can be read here). The short document reviews the workings of the body that runs disciplinary proceedings against Commission officials who may, or may not, have brought their institution into disrepute or committed criminal acts. Usually this involves cases of false claims, workplace aggression, nepotism, smuggling, theft, leaking insider information, or in one instance being found running a brothel. Understandably, as this is not a good look for the institution, the cases and by extension the annual review are not highlighted. That includes the latest 2018 report, which has been seen by the Mail on Sunday.

Every civil service, just as every major employer, will have bad ‘uns amongst its staff as a matter of pure statistics. The real question is in the first instance what you do with them when you find them; and also how hard you look.

With respect to the former, the case studies of how the EU has treated its whistleblowers is a long-standing concern, not merely on the basis of good governance but also in terms of basic human decency. I would therefore suggest that the pro-reform declarations of Lib Dems, Greens or Change UK MEP candidates have no currency nor credibility until they share a platform with one of those who have blown the lid on EU fraud, and whose lives have been blighted as a result. Despite the Commission having several technical systems and tools in place intended to spot fraud, any attempt to plug enduring gaps in public is seen as a hostile act as it damages the reputation not simply of the institution, but of the wider EU ‘project’. The intensity of this ideological and professional association sets Brussels dangerously apart from other civil services, and can too readily lend itself to an institutional atmosphere of cover-up and intimidation.

As for pursuing the fraud in the first place, therein lies its own problems. The investigative authority, OLAF, is so overburdened with the task it has in the past had to prioritise, setting its own thresholds below which it simply wouldn’t pursue investigations and the crime report would be simply dropped. The thresholds were adjustable but in 2011 for instance they sat at €1 million for customs, cigarettes and trade matters; €100,000 for accession country grants; €250,000 for agriculture and other funds; €50,000 for direct expenditure and external aid; and for internal investigations, €1,000 – since that was open bribery. The special priorities figure shifted for the following year upwards, to €500 000 in the European Social Fund and Cohesion Fund and €1 million in the European Regional Development Fund, though despite the higher threshold the inference was there would be more staff assigned to chase them as a priority, which should also be a pointer as to the number of serious cases then in the pipeline.

The problem with having thresholds, of course, was that everyone inclined towards fraud gets to find out what they could get away with. The system was subsequently, embarrassingly, moved away from running thresholds for starting investigations, and towards targets within Investigation Policy Priorities. In effect, though, by shifting to a results-based system, investigations today risk being prioritised for ‘easy wins’ in order to deliver good statistics, for instance delivering a 65% success rate on precursory investigations closed within two months. It is at least an improvement on the old system of the “prima facie non-case”, where allegations regardless of scale were written off at the outset. But the suspicion is that the principle is continued by a different name. Prioritisation of limited resources and staff, and with it the dropping of genuine fraud cases, may just taking a different form.

The reluctance to openly address these failings should be a concern for anyone in an EU member state, since after all it is their money that is at risk. By extension, we might strongly suggest that it also has implications for anyone seeking to continue to put UK taxpayers’ money into a common EU pot in the future after Brexit. It most certainly should be a concern for anyone seeking to repudiate the Brexit vote altogether and retain EU membership. Supporters of the EU after all declare that the country should ‘stay in and reform the system’.

It behoves such die-hards to openly set out the problems they claim to seek to reform – which go well beyond money matters and embrace issues of democratic accountability, quangocracies, and the murky mass lobbying that is fused into the ‘comitology’ system that advises the EU structures and turn them into an exemplar of unaccountable corporatism. On top of that, there is the regulatory loopback of legislative gold plating that is a serious long term risk to the entire UK economy, as well as public faith in its democracy. The likes of Gavin Esler and Vince Cable, if they are genuinely interested in anything more than soundbites, can find out more here.

Having stated what it is that needs supergluing, they should then acknowledge and explain how they find EU reform achievable this time round when past attempts to do precisely that have failed. The EU is in essence a federal structure, and federal systems are inherently centralising, especially at times of crisis and over emerging technology. The salami-slicing machine associated with the EU model secures this by always taking past compromises off the kitchen table, while operating without the long-term safeguards that are associated (at separate cost) with a locked constitution. This complicates attempts at reform.

The last attempt to redress the system multilaterally across the EU failed with the Convention on the Future of Europe. The opportunity was instead seized to centralise even more, rather than fulfil the Laeken Mandate intended to win back the confidence of the public and to stop the EU from…  losing so many referendums.

Multilateral change being impossible, the last attempt to reform the system bilaterally stalled with the stale Cameron negotiations. Both failures demonstrated that the only way to fix the UK’s relationship with the EU was to leave the EU and rebuild it from scratch. Instead we have seen Whitehall technicians, in a condemned building, still just playing around with the wiring. None of this has resolved any of the fundamental issues in play, and which remain associated with any close post-Brexit arrangement.

The presence of bad eggs within the EU workplace is, of course, a pointer of wider failings of human nature, but also a reminder of the variable quality of the public sector workforce across the EU. It would, in particular, be informative to find out more about the nationality of the sanctioned staff. We are not so presumptuous as to predict a clean slate amongst UK and Northern European personnel, although extensive research commissioned by the EU itself looking into fraud across national civil services did confirm the stereotypical range of levels of domestic corruption (geographical latitude being largely inverse to the professional).

Quite apart from arguments over the country’s net and gross dues, UK taxpayers’ money would be better spent if it were not sent to the EU to be pooled and anonymised. The very nature of the mythical “EU grant” that’s plucked from a magic money tree in Brussels encourages the perception of a victimless crime. That problem is not going to get fixed any time soon, and certainly not during the lifespan of these negotiations. But for now, ongoing fraud remains the dirty little secret of the Brexit talks.