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Continuing our work as the EU’s external auditor in times of crisis

By Klaus-Heiner Lehne, ECA President

The Covid-19 pandemic struck the EU and its Member States in March 2020. Apart from the immediate public health crisis, the lockdown measures that were imposed on citizens and businesses to a differing degree across all Member States have profoundly changed the way we live and work. For the activities of the ECA, the crisis also had a direct effect: from mid-March 2020 onwards, the ECA went into remote work mode. ECA President Klaus-Heiner Lehne shares his views on how the ECA and its staff have been dealing with these unprecedented challenges so far.

By Klaus-Heiner Lehne, ECA President

Our main concern during the Covid-19 crisis: the health of our staff

The ongoing public health crisis has changed the lives of most of us dramatically. Apart from the worry about the wellbeing of family, friends and colleagues, the pandemic has put the focus on what matters most in life and how easily we can take things for granted. Our thoughts go to the suffering of people and the indescribable situations which have occurred and continue to occur in hospitals and care homes in some parts of Europe and beyond. In addition, there is the social and economic impact of the crisis, which will have a long-term effect on many people in various parts of society.

For the activities of the ECA, the crisis also had a direct effect: from 16 March 2020 onwards, the College and all staff went into remote work mode, to minimise the risk of infection as far as possible. Fortunately, the number of staff members who were infected with Covid-19 has remained very limited so far and, fortunately, all have recovered fully.

Ensuring business continuity: for audit and beyond

Similarly, we managed to ensure the business continuity of our operations, even in these difficult circumstances. We activated the ECA’s Business Continuity Plan, which allowed us to take the necessary swift action, in line with the instructions of the Luxembourg authorities and together with the other EU Institutions based here in Luxembourg.

This crisis confirmed once more how important our investments in IT tools, digitalisation and remote working throughout the last years were. In particular, within a few days in mid-March 2020 we successfully transitioned around 950 staff to 100% remote working.

In normal circumstances, our auditors travel around in the EU and beyond to check how EU policies and programmes are implemented and how the EU’s money is spent. During the Covid-19 crisis, this has no longer been possible. We need to anticipate that some travel restrictions will continue to apply for some time, but at least within the EU there is hope that all borders will be open again in the near future. Nevertheless, we must remain cautious: what matters most is the health of our staff.

We also adopted specific procedures which allowed us to take decisions remotely. Members, senior management and audit teams kept in touch regularly. Also with our auditees, in the other EU institutions as well as in the Member States, all exchanges now take place through videoconferences. For the moment, this is also how we present our work at the European Parliament and the Council.

Communicating in times of crisis

During the first weeks of the Covid-19 crisis we had decided to adjust our communication policy; we stopped all publications and almost all social media activities. In mid-April we decided to resume publication of our audit reports by presenting, on 15 April 2020, our opinion 3/2020 on amending EU regulations on the use of the European Structural and Investments Funds in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, followed the next day by special report 7/2020 relating to the cost of implementing cohesion policy. Since then, we have published almost a dozen reports. The social media activities are to be resumed during the month of June.

Making our work programme Covid-19 responsive

In May 2020, we also revised our 2020 work programme to include an emphasis on Covid-19-related aspects: we have adjusted the scope, approach and timing of a number of ongoing tasks and, in addition, decided to discontinue some tasks initially planned to start in 2020. Moreover, we added two new reviews to the programme: one on the EU’s contribution to public health and another on its economic policy response to the coronavirus pandemic. The aim of both reviews is to contribute to public discussion on how the EU and its Member States have dealt with the effects of the pandemic. In addition, they will contribute to the lessons-learned exercise and the debate on the role of the EU and its bodies during this and any future crisis.

Upholding EU values and principles during the pandemic

They say a crisis brings out the worst and the best in people. I would say that this crisis has brought out the best in the people working for the ECA. Despite all the difficulties, despite occasional confusion and uncertainty, everyone is striving to find solutions to enable our work — and our collegial decision-making — to continue. I am proud to work for an institution where people have such a sense of solidarity. When the immediate public health crisis subsides, its economic and social aftermath will continue to pose unprecedented challenges for the Union, and we will have to make our contribution to addressing these: by promoting greater accountability and transparency in the European Union, and, through this, enhancing citizens’ trust in the EU institutions working on their behalf.

In the midst of this ongoing and unprecedented crisis, the European Union is going to have to redefine its role and so, naturally, will its institutions. This is also illustrated by the revised proposal for the 2021–2027 MFF that the Commission presented at the end of May, at the request of the European Council and the European Parliament. The political decisions in the coming weeks and months on this MFF, but also on other aspects, will shape our world decisively for the years to come — let us try to ensure that they are taken in full respect of our common European values and principles. You can rest assured that the ECA will continue to play its role as the EU’s external auditor and to uphold the EU’s values and principles.

This article was first published on the 2/2020 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors

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