Auditors query plans to beef up EU anti-fraud office

26 Nov 18

Plans to step up the European Union’s anti-fraud work are “not enough to improve effectiveness”, the bloc’s auditors have warned.

Changes are planned to the operation of the European Anti-Fraud Office – known as OLAF – giving it powers to access bank accounts and more legal weight and clarity.

But a European Court of Auditors ‘opinion’ cast doubt on the likely impact of the changes.

Speaking to PF International, Eva Lindström, the ECA member leading this work, said: “We do think [these measures] are one step further when it comes to increasing the effectiveness of the organisation. But this is not enough to improve OLAF effectiveness.

“We found that currently there is neither a timeframe for further reforms nor a clear identification of what issues should be addressed.”

Many of OLAF’s objectives are “too vague” and there is a “risk of overlap” between its work and that of the forthcoming European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is due to be up and running by 2021.

EPPO will be able to investigate and prosecute criminal offences that affect the EU’s financial interest, but there could be some duplication with OLAF’s work.

Currently, OLAF takes on ‘administrative investigations’ into ‘irregularities’ and fraud affecting the EU’s finances. But the office does not have the power to prosecute and instead issues recommendations on their findings.

According to the ECA, OLAF opened 250 investigations in 2017 and concluded 197 during the year, recommending the recovery of €3bn to the EU budget. Prosecution and recovery action is usually left to member states.

Lindström told PF International that it takes an average of 17-18 months for OLAF to investigate and it lacked the “muscles to go into any prosecutions”.

She added there was a “risk” that the wait means companies or persons being investigated could disappear before the funds are recovered.

“Speed is crucial in fighting fraud. And it is clear that timeliness and the recovery of funds are the major challenges for OLAF,” Lindström said.

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