The future of next generations will benefit from the EU
Interview with Pierre Moscovici, First President of the French Cour des comptes
In June 2020 President Emmanuel Macron appointed Pierre Moscovici as First President of the French Cour des comptes. With this appointment, an insider from the executive branch of EU and national politics became an external auditor, as Premier Président of one of the EU’s largest national audit institutions. As European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs in the Juncker Commission, he was as well-known in Brussels as in many EU capitals. Reason enough to interview Pierre Moscovici on his perspectives on Europe, where it can excel and how public audit institutions can help the EU to perform better.
By Derek Meijers and Gaston Moonen
Public audit can only become more relevant for the EU’s transparency
You worked for the French Cour des comptes from 1984–1988 and 2002–2004, and now you have returned to the Cour des comptes as its Premier Président. In between those periods, you gained experience as ‘the auditee’ in various positions. Have your views on the role and potential added value of supreme audit institutions changed in the course of your career?
Pierre Moscovici: When I first entered the Cour in 1984 as an auditor I could not have imagined that Palais Cambon would have welcomed me one day as its First President. Nonetheless, the very moment I crossed its entrance, I knew that I was not merely being given access to a historical and majestic building, but I was rather joining the ranks of an institution which is a pillar of our democracy. In fact, while the role of SAIs has been evolving since then — and I aspire to widen the scope and the efficiency of the Cour’s mission under my presidency — I know for sure that the priority has always been to serve its citizens. Today, in a world which is multipolar, highly interconnected and, possibly, infinitely more complex, the role of SAIs, notwithstanding their need to evolve, is even more relevant. Let’s think about citizens’ declining trust in institutions, the necessity to keep a close watch on the NextGenerationEU funds or again the role SAIs can have in making information available through open data. In short, it is a challenging and exciting time to preside over a supreme audit institution!
“… in a world which is multipolar,
highly interconnected and, possibly,
infinitely more complex, the role of
SAIs, notwithstanding their need to
evolve, is even more relevant.”
You have served as an MEP and have been Minister delegate for European Affairs, and later on Minister for Finance and Economy. In your latter capacity, one particular task was to assess how European policies can better contribute to growth and employment. What were your main findings then and do you think these findings, or most of them, would still be valid today?
Pierre Moscovici: As you probably know, my attachment to the European institutions and my engagement for the European Union are deeply entrenched in my person, in my political career, and in all the activities I undertake, including, of course, my new role as First President of the Cour des comptes. As a consequence, I was, I am and I will always be convinced that the policies which are coordinated at European level are designed in such a way as to benefit the European citizens, certainly by fostering growth and employment but also by promoting respect for the rule of law, social inclusion and, more recently, more sustainable development. Let me be clear: I do not want to provide an unrealistic portrait of European policies. I do think that in the past mistakes have been made, that a short sighted focus on austerity and a lack of flexibility when it comes to budgetary rules have all contributed to driving many European citizens away from their institutions, which constitute their common house of freedom. Nevertheless, more than focusing on the character of European policies, I would rather point to the European fora as the only places where we can design and implement together forward-looking policies capable of improving European citizens’ everyday life and giving the next generations a more radiant future.
“…European fora as the only places where we can design and implement together forward-looking policies capable of improving European citizens’ everyday life and giving the next generations a more radiant future.”
As Commissioner, from 2014 to 2019, you were responsible for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, working on issues such as Economic and Monetary Union, including the application of the Stability and Growth Pact, also dealing with banking supervision issues. For a number of SAIs the latter is a relatively new area, which was given a new dimension with the ECB’s supervision tasks. How do you see the role of the ECA and possibly your SAI in this area?
Pierre Moscovici: I am glad that you decided to evoke such a relevant subject — and nonetheless still highly neglected within the public discourse — as the prudential supervision of financial institutions, and the distribution of supervising tasks between the ECB, the ECA and the national SAIs. In fact, during my mandate as a Commissioner, I already had the opportunity to appreciate how the introduction of the Single Supervisory Mechanism, the SSM, notwithstanding its incontestably noble intentions of simplification, harmonisation and enhanced effectiveness of banking supervision, also revealed normative deficiencies and had unattended and unwelcome consequences for the SAIs’ audit mandates.
I fully support the position of the EU Contact Committee of EU Heads of SAIs, which was expressed in a very straightforward manner in November 2018. It called for the strengthening of transparency and accountability in order to close the audit gaps and to ensure full access to all information deemed relevant for audit work. I do believe that it is critical to align the ECA’s mandate to audit the ECB’s supervisory mechanism with its other mandates to audit the other institutions and bodies of the EU. It is also of utmost importance that EU national governments and parliaments verify whether or not their SAIs effectively hold a mandate to audit banking supervision, allowing for the application or the extension of their audit mandates if this is considered necessary and feasible. In this respect, let me just highlight the fact that we, as the Cour, did not experience any withholding of information during the audit of the Banque de France in 2018. We sincerely wish all EU SAIs and the ECA the same quality of relationships we have developed with our auditees in France.
The EU needs the means to grow towards a more sustainable, innovative and proactive Union
In the European Commission you were also responsible for taxation matters. With the recovery plan and the NextGenerationEU there will also be a fundamental plan to reform the EU’s own resources provisions. How do you see this developing and how do you see the role of EU SAIs in this context?
Pierre Moscovici: I do believe that a reform of the EU’s own resources provisions represents a matter of the utmost importance for the European Union. After directly witnessing several crises during my mandate as EU commissioner, the refugee crisis and Brexit among others, this unprecedented global health crisis has shown clearly how fundamental it is for our Union to dispose of more consistent own resources provisions in order to promptly respond to any external and internal shock. Reactiveness is key to long-lasting resilience. In this sense, I gladly welcome any discussion aimed at addressing the issue. For example, measures such as the proposal of a digital taxation aimed at specifically regulating Big Tech, or the plan to implement a carbon border tax for non-European companies, which usually tend to be less attentive to their environmental impact than their European counterparts, all represent important steps in the right direction. EU SAIs can play an important role in that they can legitimise the use of additional funds for the EU budget. In most EU Member States, SAIs tend to be the most trusted and appreciated institutions because citizens perceive how crucial their role is in making decision-makers and public officials accountable to public opinion. The Cour, as the financial watchdog of the Republic, will be glad to work to legitimise any further increase in France’s share of the EU budget through rigorous control.
“…this unprecedented global health crisis has shown clearly how fundamental it is for our Union to dispose of more consistent own resources provisions in order to promptly respond to any external and internal shock.”
In his mission letter to you as Commissioner, Jean-Claude Juncker wrote he wanted ‘resources to be allocated to [the Commissions’] priorities and to make sure that every action [the Commission] takes delivers maximum performance and value added.’ Looking back at your time as Commissioner, where do you see your Commission has been most successful in adding value, and where do you think there are good opportunities for the current Commission to do so?
Pierre Moscovici: Broadly speaking, I would claim that in the Commission I had the chance to be part of a team that proved rather successful in creating the favourable conditions for a solid macro-economic environment conducive to jobs, growth and investment across the EU, and whose pillars were sound public finances and a stable single currency. Within our mandate we probably managed in some way to lay the foundations of today’s negative interest rates and renewed solidarity among European countries, two crucial elements which have contributed to rendering the Covid-19 economic measures less menacing than they might have otherwise been. Moreover, I can also mention our resolute fight against tax fraud and tax evasion, which has paved the way for the thorough, fair and simple taxation framework which is currently being implemented.
The current Commission is certainly proving ambitious, hardworking and well-intentioned. It is acting decidedly in two key areas, the green transition and the digital transition, which will leave Europe’s future generations a more sustainable, innovative and proactive Union. We must also acknowledge that the current Commission has to operate in exceptional circumstances. It has managed to react promptly and boldly to the greatest economic crisis our continent has witnessed since World War II. From a health management point of view, this crisis will certainly push the Commission to acquire greater competencies and to incentivise further coordination in a realm, which up to now has been the exclusive preserve of state authority. I do think that by properly overseeing the management of NextGenerationEU and the Recovery Fund, the new Commission will be able to seize the unique chance of boosting further integration within the Union: capital markets union, migration policy, European army, debt mutualisation, industrial strategy, taxation framework. There are many possible paths and I am sure that the Commission will be able to identify the areas where it can deliver maximum performance and value added.
Towards more cooperation for a concerted answer to global challenges
After your time at the Commission, what motivated you to go back to the French Cour des comptes? And what will be the key line, your key ‘slogan’ for your presidency in the upcoming years?
Pierre Moscovici: I can proudly affirm I have a heart that beats for Europe and I repeat it. But Europe also means France, which is the country where my journey started and where it will now proceed. After being engaged for five years as European Commissioner — a parenthesis in my life I consider extremely fruitful — I felt that I once again had to place the savoir-faire and experience I had developed at the service of my country, the place I first built up my European identity. In this sense, which place could have been more suitable than my first professional home?
Leaving a personal mark on the institution or organisation is -understandably — every new President’s dream. That is why, when I delivered my inauguration speech, I defined six orientations which would guide my presidency and which will guide the Cour through a new phase. In short, the ambition is to maintain the Cour’s traditional mission as a jurisdictional institution, while developing new competencies for public policy evaluation and public sector consulting. In this sense, even from the perspective of a thorough reform, which has been named Juridictions Financières 2025 (JF25), the Cour will aim to enhance its cooperation with the world of knowledge and culture, with the strong conviction that establishing a synergy will best contribute to serve the citizens of France. Alongside this horizon, we also envisage making the Cour a higher profile actor in the international, and especially European, sphere, since we believe that the new intertwined global challenges we have to face (Covid-19, disinformation, Big Tech regulation) increasingly require a harmonised and concerted answer and mutually beneficial collaboration. After all, it should not come as a surprise that as First President I will attempt to foster the Cour’s European character, should it?
The French Cour des comptes and the ECA have been cooperating on a regular basis for a number of years now, at different levels. The field of transport and mobility is one such area, where the Cour des comptes and ECA auditors have regular exchanges, also rather informally. In what other areas do you see such cooperation bearing fruit and in what other areas would you like to see more or different forms of cooperation between the two institutions?
Pierre Moscovici: I have to say that as First President I am extremely satisfied with the extent of cooperation between the Cour des comptes and the European Court of Auditors, which contributes to mutual understanding of our methods and procedures. It is of course always possible to widen the scope of our collaboration and to enhance our relations. In particular, exchanges of auditors and magistrates could be promoted and taken to the next level to gain further experience and build stronger and closer human ties between our two institutions. Besides, I am strongly convinced that the key challenge represented by the digital transition of public administration — one of the Cour’s six main orientations under my presidency — would provide us with the ideal opportunity to work side by side on a crucial topic of public interest. When it comes to open data, the simplification of administrative documents and their accessibility to larger sections of the public, institutions such as ours are expected to organise such transitions smoothly and in the best interests of their citizens. Keeping this in mind, I would see the co-organisation of a laboratory on open data and digital transition as a welcome initiative to take our cooperation to the next level.
“…the key challenge represented by the digital transition of public administration (…) would provide us with the ideal opportunity to work side by side…”
The right to hold public servants to account
Citizens are particularly keen on transparency and accountability. How do you see the role of the French Cour des comptes in the accountability for EU funds? And what is in your view of key importance to ensure such accountability in relation to the considerable expenditure and efforts made — and envisaged — in the framework of the Covid-19 crisis measures?
Pierre Moscovici: As I briefly mentioned earlier, it is indeed an exciting and challenging time to be part of an EU SAI. It is hard to deny that, at least symbolically, the conception of both the Recovery plan and NextGenerationEU represent a Hamiltonian moment. I do think that these measures perfectly reflect the EU’s survival instinct and awareness of the historicity of current times. Such a unique opportunity cannot be wasted.
…the conception of both the Recovery plan and NextGenerationEU represent a Hamiltonian moment.
Transparency has to be the lighthouse helping us navigate in agitated waters. It is no surprise that at this exceptional time of the support scheme for the post-Covid-19 economy, the debate is increasingly dominated by the quality of public spending rather than the amount of public spending. We therefore have to make sure that all the funds will be wisely and effectively invested in such a way as to maximise their impact. In this sense, EU SAIs will have the opportunity and responsibility to be vigilant on the allocation and quality of use of these resources. The Cour des comptes, as well as the other EU SAIs, should always keep Article 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as their North Star. Society always has the right to demand that every public servant account for her/his administration of public money, even more so in critical times where the choices made today will have an impact on future generations.
“Society always has the right to demand that every public servant account for her/his administration of public money…”
This article was first published on the 3/2020 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.