European Agencies: Too many, too much

Still from a film for the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Image:

Immigration, fisheries, GMOs… 28 agencies are supposed to provide support for EU member states and their citizens. But they are being criticized for their high running costs and poor management practice. La Tribune reports on the issues that Brussels is planning to set right.

Close to 1,600 kilometres separate Warsaw from Athens, but in spite of this distance, in 2004 Europe’s heads of state chose to locate the headquarters of the agency responsible for the control of immigration on the EU’s external borders, Frontex, in the Polish capital — a decision that overlooked the simple fact that the majority of undocumented migrants who arrive in Europe do so via Mediterranean countries.

“The decision to manage military and coastguard boats deployed on the coast of Malta from Warsaw is a very odd choice,” complains German MEP Ingeborg Grässle, a member of the European parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control. In February, Europe’s leaders finally acknowledged this argument when they agreed to create a subsidiary of Frontex in Piraeus. In November 2009, they had already approved a 5 million euro budget for the future European Asylum Support Office in Malta, which will enter into service next September.

Agencies that sprout up like mushrooms

Parallel initiatives are typical of the functioning of European agencies. Any problem that arises is quickly resolved by the creation of yet another agency, office, bureau, institute, observatory or authority. To date, the EU has established 28 organizations — at such diverse locations as Vigo, Helsinki, Heraklion and Parma — to accomplish a vast range of missions, which include monitoring of GMOs, working conditions, the registering of patents, and respect for fishing quotas etc.

However, branching out from Brussels with the goal of establishing greater ties between the government of the EU and its citizens has come at a high cost. With the exception of five agencies that are self financing, all of these organizations have to be supported by EU funds — to the tune of 1.24 billion euros in 2008 — and the overall budget continues to grow to pay for ever greater numbers of staff, which have doubled over the last five years: from 2,250 to 4,460. “Agencies sprout up like mushrooms without any rhyme or reason whenever they are requested by member states,” exclaims MEP Véronique Mathieu. And there is no prospect of a reduction in staffing levels, which would be actively opposed by national governments.

Trouble observing rules imposed by Brussels

The decision to create a new structure is directly decided by European leaders, and EU summits are often characterized by epic conflicts between different member states eager to appropriate the jobs and powers that will be established by a new agency on their territory. In December, Slovenia narrowly won a hard-fought race with Romania and Slovakia to be selected as the location for new EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators. “If the European Council was truly honest, it would agree to close some agencies,” points out German MEP Ingeborg Grässle, who has highlighted the redundancy of having two agencies in Thesalonika and Turin, which specialize in vocational training, and two others — Eurofound in Dublin and Osha in Bilbao — to monitor working conditions.

Better monitoring of community agencies, which have increasingly been criticised for budgetary errors, is urgently needed, but has also proved difficult to implement. Smaller agencies, which are often overwhelmed by administrative tasks, have trouble observing rules imposed by Brussels. And they have often been tempted to take the law into their own hands. Numerous instances of overestimated budgetary requirements, unnecessary recruitment and failure to implement fully transparent calls for tender have been pinpointed by the Commission’s Internal Audit Service: to wit, the European Agency for Reconstruction in the Balkans payment of 1.4 million euros to Unicef — an initiative described as “highly irregular” by the European regulator.

A piece of Brussels jargon

At least one agency has had to contend with even more serious sanctions. CEPOL, the London-based European Police College, where two staff members have been accused of misappropriation of EU funds, is currently under investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF. In January of this year, the college’s Swedish director discreetly resigned, to be replaced by the former Deputy Chief of the Hungarian National Police. At the same time, the Commission highlighted its dissatisfaction by cutting one million euros from CEPOL’s budget.

For Europe’s leaders, the scandal highlighted the need for tighter controls. In 2009, the EU’s 27 member states agreed to put a brake on funding and recruitment for European agencies. Last month, Commission President José Manuel Barroso convened a meeting of agency directors “for an exchange of views on the EU’s future approach to agency governance” — a piece of Brussels jargon which implies a strong will to rein in the activity of political entities that Brussels is increasingly unable to control.

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