In previous posts, I have discussed how we, Eurocrats, are accountable to the European citizen, via elected officials (ie Member States and MEPs). To conclude my series on Accountability in the European Commission, I will tell more about the internal accountability which is expressed through three distinct bodies: Ombudsman, Court of Auditors, OLAF.
Maybe the more famous of the three, the Ombudsman was established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, to treat any complaint a citizen can have against European Institutions. Currently the post is held by Nikiforos Diamandouros, in Strasbourg. Not really a judge, he acts as a mediator when a citizen feels he has been bamboozled by the Institutions. You can check on his website the different cases. I never had to deal with him, but my feeling is that he helps a lot in minimizing the distance between a citizen and the administration.
Court of Auditors
The Court of Auditors is a bit older (born in 1975) and lives in Luxembourg. And we deal with them a lot... They just arrive at your floor (with a short notice), size all the documents and emails they want and lock themselves in the Archive room. So they basically do financial audits of the whole set of European Institutions (since the Treaty of Amsterdam) but also EU funded projects. And there is a lot you can learn by looking at financial accounts. You may have heard about it when it comes to certifying the Budget of the Commission. You have got to admit that the Court of Auditors is a pretty good agent for change. The Budget is now becoming more and more reliable because those guys have made sure we do a serious job.
A lesser known activity of the Court is to audit projects but also our internal procedures. They choose their sectors among the thousands of activities we have and take an external look at it. It is very interesting to read their reports on what you do. They sometimes give an opinion on what you do (and they should not), but it is how you do things that really matters. They have triggers a number of internal reforms with their reports, which shows that we are ready to accept criticism and improve how we do business.
Office Européen de Lutte Anti-Fraude or European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF)
Last but not least, the youngest of the three, born in 1999, or should I say re-born fully independent. In a nutshell, OLAF investigates any allegation of fraud which involve European money. Like the Court of Auditors, OLAF has a right to investigate internal and external accounts to prevent fraud or corruption. But unlike the Court of Auditor, they like to pop in unannounced. The Office does not have a proper enforcement mechanism, but they rely on national justice system to prosecute.
Let say that if you are investigated by OLAF, it is the worst thing that can happen to a Fonctionnaire. That was the case at EUROSTAT in 2004, with an infamous leak from a German journalist, who ended up with the Ombudsman... I heard lately that they are quite busy in Bulgaria nowadays!