More than 4 billion euros ($4.3 billion) of European Union funds
were misspent last year, EU auditors estimated in a report released on Tuesday,
which highlighted poor checks in receiving states on how the bloc’s funds are
assessment is likely to fan the heated debate about the bloc’s next seven-year
budget which Germany, the largest contributor to it, wants to cap below EU
proposals meant to address new expenses on migration, social security and
The European Court of Auditors (ECA), which is responsible for
assessing the annual 155-billion-euro EU budget, estimated that an average of
2.6% of last year’s EU expenses were irregular, up from 2.4% the previous year.
Because of that, auditors could not give a clean-sheet
assessment of the budget and issued a “qualified opinion” on the regularity of
payments, the court said in a note.
The president of the court, Klaus-Heiner Lehne, said the
irregularities detected were not a reason for big concern as they represented a
small amount of the budget and were mostly caused by complex payment rules.
However, he warned about sectors in which higher levels of
errors were found, especially when EU funds were paid as reimbursements for
research, development projects in poorer regions of the bloc or aid to emerging
economies outside the EU.
In some of these fields, irregularities amounted to around 5% of
total spending, the court said. It could not provide more precise figures
because its findings were based on sample checks and statistical estimates.
Irregular payments are usually the result of mistakes or the
wrong application of EU rules but in the worst cases they can hide full-fledged
fraud. Only for a handful of payments did the court raise concerns to
investigative authorities, the report said.
Last year, the EU anti-fraud office OLAF recommended the
recovery of 371 million euros of EU funds because of criminal abuses.
The irregularities detected are likely to represent a fraction
of all errors in EU spending because of the limited resources available to
auditors to conduct checks.
Authorities in EU states where EU money is spent are not always
very keen to help. Irregularities in spending could lead to reimbursements of
funds that in some EU states, especially in the east and the south of the bloc,
are crucial for local economies.
EU auditors found more than 70% of the irregularities emerged last year in
spending on poorer regions of the bloc, the ECA report said, while authorities
of the 28 EU states detected the remainder.
In some cases, EU auditors detected errors in projects that had
already been approved by national authorities. “Member states’ auditors need to
get better at doing their checks,” said one EU official.