The European Commission has launched an ambitious bid to clean up an array of European Union agencies, authorities, offices and foundations, several of which have been caught up in scandals about conflicts of interest and lax management.
In suggesting common standards of management that should apply across all the 30-plus decentralised agencies, the Commission also prepares the ground for reducing their number, either by merger or closure.
Maroš Šefcovic, the European commissioner in charge of administration, said the aim of the proposed reforms was to improve the efficiency and accountability of the agencies.
Together, the agencies employ around 7,000 staff, about 5,000 of them on temporary contracts. In 2012 they received €750 million from the EU budget.
Some of those agencies are vital to the work of the European Union, while others are peripheral and almost invisible.
They range from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, to the Community Plant Variety Office, via the Fundamental Rights Agency, and the European Agency for the Co-operation of Energy Regulators.
The agencies now under review are distinct from the Commission’s executive agencies, which are directly answerable to the Commission. The decentralised agencies answer to their governing boards, and to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
The programme of reform put forward by Šefcovic, which was approved by his fellow European commissioners yesterday (19 December), seeks to put into effect an agreement with the Council and Parliament concluded in July.
But the Commission’s time-table for reform is likely to run into resistance from some of the member states, which tend to be protective of agencies sited on their territory, and from national delegations in the Parliament.
Some of the agencies are also likely to resist what they will perceive as interference from the Commission.
Šefcovic wants common rules on preventing and managing conflicts of interests – a problem that was the subject of a scathing report in October from the European Court of Auditors. The European Medicines Agency, the European Food Safety Agency and the European Environment Agency have all come in for particular criticism.
Monica Macovei, a Romanian centre-right MEP who led criticism of the European Environment Agency, said that addressing the problem of conflicts of interest was “vital”.
Michael Theurer, a German Liberal MEP who chairs the Parliament’s budgetary control committee, said: “It is essential that uniform rules on the management of the agencies are established to ensure the efficient use of resources.”
Šefcovic says the governing boards of agencies should in many cases be reduced because they are too unwieldy, and says the Commission should have representatives on each management board. According to the agreement with the Council and the Parliament, the Commission now has a duty to sound the alarm if it feels that an agency’s management board is about to breach its mandate, or EU law, or to contradict EU policy objectives.
The agreement also says criteria should be developed to assess whether to disband or merge agencies.
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Šefcovic said the Commission could not decide on such mergers. “The legislator [the Council and the Parliament] is the real master of the agencies,” he said. He described his proposals as “creating the necessary conditions for the possibility of such difficult decisions”.
Discussions are under way on a merger of the European Police College with Europol, the European Police Office. But it is being resisted by member states fearful of setting a precedent.
On paper, mergers might be possible between agencies involved with training and employment – the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Dublin), the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (Bilbao), the European Training Foundation (Turin) and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Thessaloniki). There is also a group of agencies in the human rights field: the Fundamental Rights Agency (Vienna), the European Institute for Gender Equality (Vilnius) and the European Asylum Support Office (Valletta).