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The power of information

How often have you looked at your smartphone today? And how often was this to obtain the latest news on something that particularly interests you? I recently saw a programme on television about addiction to news, in this case people who could not stop searching all the time for the latest news on the never-ending story of the UK leaving the EU. And these ‘addicts’ were not even Britons! Personally, I catch myself more and more often on my smart phone craving for news on the impeachment process in the US, although — typically, for most addicts — I would not call that an addiction yet. Just curiosity, rooted in a distant academic past, feeding hope for a better future.

At EU level, the past few months have certainly made us search for news on the most recent developments and perhaps glued you to your phone, too. With a newly elected European Parliament, a new European Commission soon to start its mandate, a new European Council President from 1 December 2019 onwards, and a new ECB President, the political changes are manifold. Combine this with the sense of urgency many new and also incumbent players on the EU political scene have expressed for a whole range of issues and you may feel that the EU will have to make one of the biggest transformations in its history. Towards a Union that is both green and digital and at the same time secure, socially coherent and prosperous.

This sense of urgency has culminated in high ambitions to meet expectations, fears and deadlines in almost every major policy area, whether it concerns climate, migration, defence, security, or economic growth and competitiveness. These ambitions have to be decided upon and translated into concrete action by a European Parliament which is more fragmented than ever before and a Council in which Member States increasingly seem to be defending interests which are no longer so common. This may easily neutralise the firepower that the sense of urgency can sometimes trigger in political decision-making, with the risk of putting off issues until tomorrow when decisions are needed today.

Why are all these political changes relevant to auditors, and, since we are talking about the Union in particular, the ECA? Because, although we are a non-political institution, we do work in a political environment. And because we try to be politically relevant in the sense of providing MEPs, their assistants, the working parties in the Council, the new Commission and its staff with reports, opinions and reviews to enable them to make the best possible, informed choices in their decision making. Moreover, what these decision makers are doing has an impact on the work ECA auditors do.

The ECA is the only EU institution that carries out independent checks on what is happening on the ground with EU spending on programmes and projects, and the impact of EU legislation. This provides both the ECA’s institutional stakeholders and EU citizens with insights, based on evidence and analysis, into whether the EU delivers on its promises, but also whether further efforts are needed. So, basically, checking on politicians’ claims! Otherwise, public cynicism lurks around the corner, undermining trust and, therefore, the democratic functioning of the EU.

Many contributors to this Journal, particularly those with a background in politics, highlight two things with regard to the ECA: the quality of its in-depth reporting and its provision of objective and independent analysis, based on evidence. Or, as Monika Hohlmeier, the new chair of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee says, ‘…in depth knowledge from its audits in Member States is the ECA’s key selling point.’

The importance of reliable information is becoming more and more evident in these times of fake news, disinformation and the shutdown of free access to information. Blurring facts, or completely replacing them, with fiction has also become one of the characteristics of the information revolution, as we can read in a recent book by Peter Pomerantsev, ‘This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.’ If there is no ‘shared reality,’ as he calls it, people in the public realm get away with misrepresentations or worse, thereby eroding the values and norms underpinning democratic societies. He pleads for a transparent information environment which would enable us to separate fiction from facts, to prevent information being used to polarise and destroy instead of to construct.

As it is involved in public audit, the ECA’s concern is not only to provide reports based on robust evidence, on reality, but also to facilitate access to its work. Over the summer, the ECA made an effort to provide easier access to the facts and analysis presented in its reports, in particular via mobile devices, by launching an online Publications Portal, a virtual ECA4MEP app. So don’t be surprised if you see an MEP glued to his or her phone or iPad: they may just be looking up the latest ECA report! But this app is not only for MEPs, anyone can use it to get access to our reports, opinions and reviews. And even the ECA Journal!

By Gaston Moonen, ECA Journal Editor in chief

This article was first published on the 4/2019 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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