Institutions: The nebulous world of European agencies
30 March 2012
Lacking in transparency, costly, and subject to conflicts of interest: the independence of more than 20 EU specialist agencies has led both to financial difficulties and a loss of democratic control, argues Die Presse.
The exact amount is 6,157 euros: that is what it costs to hold a meeting of the board of directors of EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority. And yes, this is the figure per head. We do not know how the 15 board members travelled to Parma [the location of EFSA’s headquarters] – they may have arrived there in litters carried by porters. Nor do we know what was on the menu – perhaps they tucked in to poached quails eggs while they looked over the agenda for the meeting.
However, thanks to the tireless efforts of Monica Macovei, a Romanian MEP who specialises in the fight against corruption, we can safely say that the board members have very unusual notions about the role they are supposed to play. In 2010 alone, EFSA spent 49 million euros on “communications and management” outsourcing.
How could such a level of dysfunction be possible?
This is not the only anomaly to be observed in the EU agencies, of which we now have 24. No doubt we should conclude that it was perfectly natural for the former chief of the European Medicines Agency in London, Thomas Lönngren, to take up a post in the pharmaceuticals industry at the beginning of this year. Ditto for Mella Frewen, who spent years working as a Brussels lobbyist for the American seed producer Monsanto, before becoming the Director General of the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), who is now about to be appointed to the EFSA.
Even NGOs appear to be unable to distinguish between what is and is not acceptable: to wit, a recent fact-finding mission to the Caribbean undertaken by the the boss of the Copenhagen based European Environment Agency an a number of her staff. The official goal of the trip organised by the NGO "Earth Watch" – but billed to the taxpayer to the tune of 2,000 per head – was to study biodiversity. That does not just look like an example of cross subsidization: it is one.
You might be forgiven for wondering how such a level of dysfunction could be possible. In fact, the reason for it is quite simple: no one is willing to take responsibility. When representatives of the European Commission are asked how they intend to address the issue of malfunctioning agencies, they always give the same answer: our hands are tied because the agencies are governed by specific rules that do not allow us to interfere, and there is nothing we can do apart from recommending that supervisory procedures be reformed, which we already did years ago.
Much of the blame for this situation should be laid at the door of Europe’s national governments, which have engaged in fierce competition to have agencies established in their respective states. Every country wants its own agency. And not surprisingly, when talks grind to halt, as they often do at European summits, proposals to open offices in individual states can be just what is needed to promote consensus on other topics.
When faced with this kind of incentive, even Austrian politicians, who are known for their zeal in criticising "the civil servants in Brussels", are suddenly in rush to reach agreement. When the Fundamental Rights Agency opened in Vienna, on 1st March, 2007, the members of the government were falling themselves to express their enthusiasm to the point where their declarations read like parodies of pop songs.
Close superfluous agencies
Foreign Affairs Minister Ursula Plassnik announced that the the creation of the Fundamental Rights Agency would "once again confirm Vienna’s position as a headquarters for major international organisations".
Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer spoke of a "the EU’s message to men and women". In passing it should be noted that in the five years of its existence the only time the Fundamental Rights Agency made any waves whatsoever was when a project to translate the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into verse was criticised by the then Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, Viviane Reding. MEP Martin Ehrenhauser has every reason to say that the Vienna agency should be closed and not replaced – not least because it is an expensive organisation with a brief to fufill a mission that is already fulfilled by the Council of Europe.
Ironically, from 1st April Europeans who group together a million or more supporters for a cause will be able to launch citizens’ initiatives. In accordance with the buzzwords in vogue, we will have more democracy, more participation, more transparency. However, procedures to authorise our medicines and analyse risks posed by food products we consume will continue to be conducted behind closed doors and outside of any legal framework.
This situation is unacceptable. Europe’s governments should take advantage of talks on the EU’s financial framework for 2014-2020 to close superfluous agencies and to reinforce the supervision of those that remain. If this is not done, these shadowy agencies will continue to set their own agenda and there will be no turning back.