Commission President Romano PRODI presented an action plan to Parliament's Budgetary Control Committee on Tuesday morning, aiming to correct the shortcomings within the Commission's organisation which came to light as a result of the Eurostat affair. MEPs reacted less than enthusiastically to the plans.
The Commission intends to change the Code of Conduct governing relations between the Commissioners and their departments, in order to place more emphasis on the Commissioners' political responsibility. There will be a specific procedure to enable directors-general to alert their Commissioner to any fact or development for which the Commissioner might have political responsibility. Secondly, there will be a new early warning system for collecting and cross-checking all information relating to allegations of fraud, irregularities or wrongdoing. The Commission also intends to take a series of technical measures, such as supervision by the Central Financial Service of the internal control systems set up by the directorates-general, the transmission to the Internal Audit Service of reports on the audits carried out within the direcorates-general, checks on the implementation of the recommendations contained in the audits, mobility for sensitive posts, conditions and procedures applying to whistle-blowers and strengthening the Internal Audit Service.
As regards the fraud fighting office OLAF, the Commission intends to make it an entirely external body. In the meantime, however, the Commission wants OLAF to refocus its activities and to reassign certain horizontal tasks which are unrelated to investigations to Commission departments. OLAF should also be enabled to concentrate on its priorities by passing on the task of following up cases of minor significance to the appropriate authorities, while the decision on whether to open investigations remains with OLAF. Finally there should be clearer rules on the flow of information between OLAF and the institutions and bodies affected, so that these will be better able to take precautionary measures.
The rapporteur for the 2001 discharge, Paulo CASACA (PES, P), expressed reservations about the plans for OLAF. He and Jan MULDER (ELDR, NL) said the issue of a Commissioner's political responsibility was still unresolved. Herbert BÖSCH (PES, A), rapporteur on the protection of the EU's financial interests, said the measures announced by Mr Prodi could and should have been taken from the beginning of the present Commission's term. Questioning the proposed action plan, he said the Eurostat case had not just been a problem of internal communication. He also stressed that the Commission had not listened to Parliament when it drew attention to the problems at Eurostat over a year ago. And he warned against the possibility that internal investigations would be dealt with by the Commission behind closed doors.
The rapporteur for the 2002 discharge, Juan José BAYONA DE PEROGORDO (EPP-ED, E), said some of the measures announced by Mr Prodi could be regarded as amusing if they were not so serious. He accused the Commission of seeking to shift some of the responsibility for the case on to OLAF, "like a thief accusing the police of not having watched him closely enough". He and Helmut KUHNE (PES, D) warned that no measures were being proposed to deal with a situation where a director-general does not inform his or her Commissioner. Mr KUHNE also said it would be unacceptable if OLAF were no longer responsible for internal investigations. Freddy BLAK (EUL/NGL, DK) called on Mr Prodi to take over the political responsibility for Eurostat, in other words to exercise administrative authority over Eurostat himself rather than leaving it to another Commissioner. Bart STAES (Greens/EFA, B) stressed that Commissioners also had a responsibility to ensure that they were being informed by their director-general. The fact that the Eurostat affair was brought to light by the Parliament and by whistle-blowers such as Ms Schmidt-Brown and Mr Van Buitenen showed that the Commission had failed terribly.
In reply, Mr Prodi denied that the Commission had sought to shift responsibility to OLAF and added that the director of OLAF still enjoyed his full confidence. According to Mr Prodi, the "tough decisions" taken by the Commission showed that it did intend to face up to its own responsibilities.
Mr Prodi announced that the replies to the 19 written questions put by the Budgetary Control Committee would be given to MEPs by 6pm this Wednesday. Lastly, he called on Parliament to back the Commission's efforts and its plan of action, saying "We want to carry out these reforms with Parliament".