Well on track, but not there yet !
Interview with Rimantas Šadžius, ECA Member
In 2017 and again in 2019, the ECA College appointed Rimantas Šadžius as its Member for Institutional Relations, a role in which he strives to improve and deepen cooperation with the other EU institutions and stakeholders in the Member States. We interviewed him to find out how he sees the ECA’s relationship with the European Parliament (EP) and the Council and where he would like to see further improvements.
By Derek Meijers and Gaston Moonen
A bridgehead in Brussels
Rimantas Šadžius has been the ECA’s Member for Institutional Relations (MIR) now for two and a half years. This is a responsibility within the College of ECA Members which was created relatively recently. Ville Itälä, the former Finnish ECA Member, was the first MIR and he took on the responsibility of improving the ECA’s relations with its institutional stakeholders within the framework of the ECA’s 2013–2017 strategy. Rimantas Šadžius: ‘Ville Itälä did a great job in building the key relations with stakeholders, especially with the European Parliament. He helped to intensify these relations to promote our work, but also to position ourselves better as an important source of information for our institutional stakeholders. You could say he paved the way for me as his successor as MIR.
Adding to this, Rimantas Šadžius points out that, back then already, one of the ECA’s goals was to ‘improve outreach to our audiences, meaning institutional stakeholders and citizens, to increase our relevance to the good functioning of this Union. There were, however, a number of challenges and barriers that we needed to overcome to increase our reach.
To explain the importance of good institutional relations, Rimantas Šadžius goes back to the specific framework of the EU. ‘For each supreme audit institution (SAI) it is crucial to have a ‘central-to-go-to’ committee in its parliament, as a first stop en route towards spreading your message, one that is always ready to listen and that passes on your messages to other relevant committees in parliament. In the European Parliament, that is the Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT).’ Rimantas Šadžius points out that the ECA can consider itself lucky to have such a strong partner within the EP, as not all national parliaments have an equivalent committee focussing on budgetary control. ‘And that makes it much harder for an SAI to be heard in parliament.
Taking the floor in parliament
Rimantas Šadžius is pleased about what the ECA has accomplished in the EP, especially when taking into consideration just how many reports the ECA publishes each year. ‘In 2018, we published well over 40 reports, all of which we want to bring to the attention of the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). One of the challenges we faced here was that we had to go through the CONT before we could present our work in other EP committees.’ He points out that the CONT is unable to deal with all ECA products on its own in a timely manner. ‘So previously, you had a large number of reports, covering a broad range of EU policies, but not enough parliamentary ears to present them to.’
Rimantas Šadžius explains that, by definition, the ECA publishes different audit products on a variety of EU policies throughout a calendar year. ‘It is crucial to publish reports in all policy areas, we cannot concentrate all our work on a single area each year, that way we would lose our experience in other areas. This is also illustrated by the fact that we have several audit chambers specialising in specific policy areas.’ He adds that, when the ECA established the MIR function, the idea was to make better use of this plurality and to reach out to all of the various EP committees.’
He underlines that improving that outreach was a joint effort by the ECA President, KlausHeiner Lehne, and all the ECA Members. ‘Thanks to their efforts and the goodwill and cooperative stance of the EP, especially the CONT, we managed to open up new roads to the specialised committees. As MIR, it was my task to meet with as many relevant committee chairs as possible, for example the AGRI, REGI, and TRANS committees.’ Also, it is not a given that new MEPs are aware of the ECA and its work. Rimantas Šadžius: ’Every new legislative period we present ourselves and our work to the new MEPs, explaining what the committee could expect from us and illustrating how we can support the MEPs in their work. And why it is important to take our reports into consideration.
Being more than a financial watchdog
When asked about the approach the ECA takes to advertising itself and its work in Brussels, Rimantas Šadžius opens his toolkit for inter-institutional courting. ‘Creating a demand is crucial. To achieve this, we ask the MEPs to come up with proposals, audit ideas that the committees could put forward to the ECA. In turn, we will consider these ideas when we prepare our annual work plan. Of course, the ECA is fully independent in deciding what it will audit, and by no means are we obliged to take up all the EP’s audit ideas. But as many MEPs are specialists in their respective policy areas, it is also obvious that their ideas and proposals are very relevant for us when selecting and prioritising audits.’
Rimantas Šadžius: ‘Especially when we started doing this, we found we had to manage the MEPs expectations and explain in greater detail what the ECA can do and what it cannot. We do not engage in politics, for example, this is not the job of auditors. We only provide high quality audit evidence and analysis.’ He points out that some MEPs would like the ECA to move more in the direction of presenting more detailed recommendations in its reports. ‘Or even come up with our own legislative proposals. However, this is not what we offer. We can contribute to the legislative discussion, but we cannot take part in the legislative process! Such expectation management and clarifying our role and possibilities is another thing I try to do in my meetings with representatives of the EP and our other institutional stakeholders.’
For Rimantas Šadžius it is clear that the ECA is a non-political organisation that tries to be relevant in a political environment. ‘Being an expert in the field we are well placed to contribute to the political process. What we put in our reports is based on audit evidence that we have thoroughly checked and verified. Our recommendations are based on our professional judgement and we provide the legislators with an overview of the situation in a given policy area, more and more often including concepts and scenarios.’ He thinks the ECA is quite advanced in creating this added value for parliamentarians, going well beyond the more traditional audit scope. ‘This is also the reason that some people have said that we are developing towards becoming the EU’s regulatory watchdog that also looks at the impact of regulation, rather than examining only financial aspects.
Good symbiosis with the legislator
Matching its audit work to the legislative work in the EP is another important factor that helps the ECA to become increasingly relevant. ‘That is crucial and I took that as a guiding goal when I took over the MIR role. To cut a long story short, we decided to reach out to all the EP committees to be better aware of their cycle and the topics they are working on, so that we can publish relevant reports at the right moment.’ He concludes that this approach has proved to be useful. ‘The Parliament is also willing to go a step further and to grant us better access, not only to the CONT but also to the specialised committees. This is again an important shift in EP-ECA relations, so I am very optimistic for the new legislative period.’
Rimantas Šadžius gives an example from his personal experience of how important timing can be. ‘Following the publication of a special report for which I was the reporting Member, special report 22/2018 on Erasmus+, we had a very good meeting with the EP Committee on Culture and Education (CULT). The report put two consecutive points on their agenda: the findings from our Special Report, and a legislative proposal for an Erasmus regulation for the next financial period. We tied them together and it was a successful example of cooperation not only with the rapporteur but also with the rapporteur for the legislative proposal concerned by the report. All our proposals and recommendations were included in the proposal for the EP’s position. During the discussions, I had an opportunity to comment several times on the legislative proposals — of course within the limits of my remit as an ECA Member.’
He considers this to be a good example of a situation in which the legislators make good use of ECA recommendations in their legislative work. ‘Overall, we see that many questions are put to us when a report is discussed in a committee other than the CONT. Which is logical, since these committees often consist of experts that know their subject quite well. They evaluate our conclusions and recommendations and assess whether they are relevant for the legislation they are working on.’ He observes that the ECA’s work is increasingly being taken into consideration by the branch committees. ‘Many of my colleagues here share this positive experience.
Room for further improvement
Relations with the EP have improved over the past few years and Rimantas Šadžius is eager to do the same regarding relations with the Council. ‘Apart from the EP, the Council is the other main institutional stakeholder for the ECA. But there is still a lot of room for improvement in our cooperation, for example when it comes to presenting our special reports to the Council of Ministers.’ He notes that a good example in this respect was the presentation of special report 3/2018 on the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure to the ministers in the Economic and Financial Affairs Council — ECOFIN.
While he would welcome more presentations at minister level, Rimantas Šadžius keeps a down-to-earth perspective here. ‘I think it is important to be more heard, to become more relevant at the level of the COREPER [Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union] meetings and the Council working parties that work on legislative proposals and prepare those for the ministers. That is a good forum to reach out and present our findings to our stakeholders in the Member States.’
He points out that his colleagues in the ECA, and he himself, have had good experiences presenting ECA findings in preparatory bodies in the Council. ‘Take again this special report on Erasmus+. When I presented the report’s findings to the Council’s working party for education issues, it met with great interest and it instigated a fruitful discussion with the participation of our auditee, the Commission, and a number of Member States. There our audit work can serve the development of better policies and legislation directly.’ He concludes that, in the end, the impact on the practical level is what matters most. ‘So I think we are on the right track towards having an impact in the Council, but that there is still a lot of work to do to increase our presence and take-up at the Council.’
He adds that high-level Council committees offer another opportunity to communicate to the community of representatives from the Member States. ‘We managed to put a number of important issues on the table of different Council committees, which helped to gain support for our agenda. A good example of this is the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed recently between the European Central Bank (ECB) and the ECA on access to documents during audits of the ECB. The negotiation process was complicated and ECA appearances in the Council’s Financial Services Committee were crucial to achieving the agreement.’
Fine tuning the ECA’s outreach activities
What can the ECA do better when trying to find the right audience among its institutional stakeholders? Rimantas Šadžius thinks that the ECA should gear its presentations to the different types of audience, depending on what their interest is. ‘When presenting our audit findings to assist the legislative process, we have to keep in mind that our audiences do not always need all the details of a special report, but are rather interested in certain aspects of our findings. Therefore, I think we should be more selective in what we present to who, when and in which forum.’ His advice to any ECA colleague who presents audit work, be it an ECA Member or an auditor, is: ‘Focus on what would be relevant for that specific audience.’
For Rimantas Šadžius it is clear that the ECA’s grasp of the necessity of this approach is improving. ‘But it is just as important that our stakeholders are increasingly picking and choosing, not always having to take on board the integral findings of ECA audits, but using those aspects of one or more audit reports that serve their work best.’ He thinks that, following this trend, the ECA needs to communicate more about crosscutting aspects dealt with in a number of reports, so that they can be picked up easily.‘ This is an area where we can still make ground towards the Council.
Rimantas Šadžius underlines that it is obviously up to the individual EP committees or Council parties to decide if and how ECA representatives may present their work in person. ‘We are not part of the legislative process, so it is really up to our stakeholders to decide if they need us to make a presentation and to amplify the findings, conclusions and recommendations from our audit reports. We do not necessarily have to be there in person to put in our two cents.’
Overall, Rimantas Šadžius concludes that the ECA is appearing more and more on the radar of its institutional stakeholders. ‘I deduce this for example from the fact that both the EP and the Council frequently take up recommendations that have been made in ECA special reports. So even if we are not participating in the actual legislative process — and by no means in a formal way — our work is being given ever greater consideration during the drafting of the final legislative act.’ In his view, the question of whether the ECA is invited to the Council or Parliament is not even that important, ‘As long as our work is on the table and taken into consideration when they discuss their position on a legislative proposal.’
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.