The European Court of Auditors (ECA) has signed off the 2017 accounts of the agencies working for the EU in Brussels or in the member states. All 41 of them received a clean opinion on their financial statements except the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), where the auditors identified a number of serious problems in the payments of the office. They noted that EASO payments have systematically breached the regulations, mainly in relation to public procurement and recruitment. The combined error of non-compliant payments amounts to at least €7,7 million or more than 10 % of all payments in 2017 and demonstrates an inadequate or rather total lack of internal control and governance.
This comes as bad news for the European Commission which in recent years has multiplied EASO´s budget in view of its pressing tasks in handling the migration crisis. Alarm bells were ringing already in a special audit report last year on the hotspot approach but the Commission might have thought that the “spending culture” belonged to the past.
Asked by the Brussels Times about the Commission’s reaction, a spokesperson replied at a press briefing (16 October) in Brussels that the Commission takes the audit report extremely seriously and will monitor the agency’s implementation of the audit recommendations to remedy the weaknesses and restore confidence in the agency.
EASO is one of the few-multi location EU agencies, with headquarters in Malta and support operations in Greece and Italy. It was established already in 2011 with the aim of enhancing practical cooperation on asylum matters and help Member States. Since 2015 it has been heavily involved in providing support to Greece and Italy in the context of the migration crisis.
Despite its relative experience and huge budget increase, it was not ready for the crisis. Its staffing situation has “deteriorated exponentially” since the end of 2017, with about 60 % of managers on head of unit and head of sector levels vacant. In fact, the agency has suffered from high staff turnover since 2014.
Not only did the agency not establish an internal audit function. It also lacked an internal legal service to supervise its recruitment, tender and contract procedures. Instead the agency uses at least 8 different law firms, without verifying their services.
The audit report lists a number of contracts which were signed following an irregular tender procedure. Nevertheless, the agency still pays millions of euros under such contracts.
Asked by the Brussels Times what will happen with the money already disbursed under these contracts, the auditors replied that the contracts are valid and that the money for services received stays with the contractors until they have been replaced.
OLAF confirmed to the Brussels Times that it has opened an investigation into suspicions of irregularities at EASO but cannot issue any further comment as the investigation is on-going.
Following the many irregularities and the mismanagement in running EASO, which according to the auditors expose it to risks of financial losses or reputational damages, the agency is currently carrying out an internal inquiry. The former director was forced to resign last June and a new interim executive director has been appointed.
The new management has presented a Governance Action Plan, which was endorsed by EASO’s Management Board. The plan includes a recruitment programme, which is expected to more than double the agency’s staff by the end of 2020.
The auditors understand the explanation by EASO that it has faced a difficult situation but do not accept it as a justification for the irregularities. In its reply to the audit report, EASO accepts all findings and apparently sees the report as an opportunity to make things right.