‘Count on us to speak the truth, whether it is welcome or not’

European Court of Auditors
12 min readJun 8, 2023


Interview with Stef Blok, ECA Member since 1 September 2022

Stef Blok. Source: European Court of Auditors

By Gaston Moonen

On 1 September 2022, Stef Blok joined the ECA as a new ECA Member, taking over the post of Alex Brenninkmeijer, who tragically passed away on 14 April 2022. With long experience in public life — as a parliamentarian and minister responsible for various policy areas — Stef Blok is keen to go into depth about the details and effects of EU programmes and actions. His aim is to help to make the EU function better.

A broad policy interest stemming from his previous responsibilities for various portfolios

Stef Blok has been in public service for most of his professional life, first in the Dutch parliament, and then as a minister responsible for various ministries. Before going into national politics, he worked in the private sector for a well-known Dutch bank. ‘I enjoyed working there because it allowed me to see different aspects of society. I worked with SMEs when I was a branch manager, with all the local private customers and their daily issues, as well as with mortgages and savings accounts. Then I turned to corporate banking, seeing how large companies and public institutions work: for example, hospitals in the Netherlands have credit facilities with banks, as does higher education.’ He explains he already had an interest in politics, combining his work with membership of the municipal council in the town where he lived. ‘I truly enjoyed this combination. As they do every four years, my party, like any party other, was looking for new faces, and asked me to give it a try to join the national parliament.’ Under the motto ‘no guts, no glory’, he decided to do so, and was elected to parliament in 1998 at the age of 33.

Both as a parliamentarian and as a minister, Stef Blok dealt with many different policy areas, serving as a minister for housing, economic affairs, climate policy, security and justice, and foreign affairs. He thinks it is useful to have knowledge of the policy area you are responsible for, but that you don’t need to be a specialist. ‘You are blessed with very skilled people, with huge departments. But of course, you have to understand what really matters. For housing, banking is an ideal background because housing is to a large extent macro-economics and financial markets. I was responsible for mortgages when I was 24 years old. As a minister, I was responsible for the civil service, which was very much linked to human resources, as well as for IT and real estate. I was even responsible for the royal palaces. Of course, I was not a specialist in any of these areas. But having held management posts in the private sector, I knew about management issues.’ He regards his post as minister of security and justice as the most challenging, given the knowledge required, and explains that the justice department employed a total of 120 000 staff, including the police, prisons, the public prosecution service, and the judiciary. ‘My concern was how to make all these different people and organisations cooperate. I had the impression that many people appreciated the fact that the minister left the technicalities of the law to the specialists, and concentrated on managing what was more or less a conglomerate.’

From his time working as a parliamentarian, Stef Blok recalls that he visited the ECA, meeting former Dutch ECA Member Maarten Engwirda, some time around the year 2000, as a member of the Finance Committee of the Dutch parliament. ‘The main reason for our visit was that we considered the ECA’s work as very important. Especially the discharge: in those days, the statements of assurance contained much higher estimated error rates, and there were real concerns in the Netherlands about that. Two other elements played a role: the Dutch have a Calvinist outlook, and are not inclined to spend money. And the Netherlands Court of Audit is also held in high esteem, and has a good relationship with parliament.’ He thinks that in the Netherlands the ECA is viewed in the light of this tradition, supporting an important part of parliament, both at national and EU level. ‘In those days, the ECA’s reports were well read and well used. And that is still the case.’

Separating audit from politics

Stef Blok’s main takeaway from his time in politics is how blessed we are to live in the European Union. ‘We cannot take that for granted. It is hard work to maintain what we have and to improve. And I think we owe it to our children, and to people who are less well off. That we constantly look critically at what governments do, and are honest about what is not going well in order to find ways to improve. As I said, what drove me as a parliamentarian and what drives me now as an ECA Member is to look at how the EU operates so that we can improve things.’ He argues that it is undeniable that there is no alternative to cooperation in Europe. ‘It is also undeniable that EU politics is even more complex than national politics, due to differences in culture and in levels of economic development. But there is no alternative to this cooperation, so let’s make a success of it.’ He believes that having independent institutions like the ECA is an essential part of this. ‘Taxpayers are paying us to bring the facts to light, regardless of whether they are positive or negative for the Commission, or sometimes for a Member State. In that respect, the ECA is an ultimate fact checker. And then it is up to politicians, and of course up to the public and journalists, to form judgements and preferably take action.’

When discussing how to clearly distinguish facts from politics, Stef Blok is straightforward, referring to the theme of this Journal: energy transition. ‘There are many facts to present there: there is the CO₂ reduction aim, enshrined in legislation, and measurements to assess whether we are progressing towards that aim.’ He continues that we can look into detail at which measures are contributing and which are not, whether sustainable energy is competitive pricewise and why, which can also include looking at taxes. ‘Then you can suggest what might be done to make it competitive. The choice to do it or not is then a political one.’ In his view, the wording is important here. ‘You can say, for instance, as the ECA did in a review from last year: because of the current tax situation, fossil fuels are more attractive than sustainable in certain sectors. And as long as this is the case, it is unlikely that fossil fuels will be phased out. Things become political if you say how taxes should actually be imposed. You cannot avoid the conclusion that something needs to be changed in the current set-up of tax subsidies, etc. But I think you should stop there, underlining that with the current situation you will not reach your aims. Which is, of course, huge for a Commissioner or minister responsible for this area. If I as a minister had such a report, then the parliament would fall over me.’

As a minister, Stef Blok dealt with multiple discharge procedures, and found them useful and valuable. ‘Also as a minister, I was really glad that there was an impartial auditor. You can never be sure that staff are aware of everything that is happening on the ground. Nor can you be sure that they will tell you everything that may become important, especially when things are going wrong.’ He recalls several examples where it was the Court of Audit in the Netherlands that warned him that things were going wrong. Giving a specific example, he mentions the backlog there was in addressing cyber security issues while he was working as minister of Foreign Affairs. ‘And there is a real threat, as we all know, from cyberattacks, especially for that ministry. I was very grateful for this report, and I really set my IT staff to work, asking them to report to me each month on the progress they’d made.’

Being questioned by parliament is not a new experience for Stef Blok, even at European Parliament level, since as a former MP and minister he had visited the European Parliament before. ‘For my hearing as the nominated ECA Member, I prepared myself by meeting with members of the Budgetary Control Committee and watching recordings of the hearings before mine.’ What he considered specific in his case was that he had become a candidate after an open procedure. ‘So although I had not already been through hearings, I had had a number of interviews in the Netherlands following an open advertisement.’

In his current position, he still has to deal with questions about his past responsibilities, particularly from Dutch journalists. On this point, Stef Blok stresses that he believes it is very important for ECA Members to have close contacts with journalists. ‘Because we can only be effective if our reports are well covered in the media. Dutch journalists are very interested in our work, but so far they have also asked me questions about current political affairs in the Netherlands connected to the past. He smiles, saying that he always gives the same answer: ‘I understand your question, but I am an independent ECA Member now, so I will not comment on current political affairs in the Netherlands.’ He adds, laughing: ‘And that makes my life easy. But it cannot be any other way.’

Speaking up, no matter what

At the ECA, Stef Blok is a member of the audit chamber responsible for ‘Investment in cohesion, growth and inclusion’. He stresses that he has a broad interest in many topics. ‘And I consider myself even more blessed to work at the ECA because you have the possibility to really dig deep into different areas of public policy.’ He adds that of course he also follows the work going on in other audit chambers, raising issues there or at Court meetings. ‘I am very interested in the Recovery and Resilience Facility (the RRF) because it is huge and contains many new elements. I know it from my time as Minister of Foreign Affairs because I was involved in the negotiations.’

Having experienced the ECA’s ‘bread and butter’ issues from the inside for some months now, he believes the ECA should be self-confident when dealing with the Commission. ‘As I’ve already said, I have also been an auditee. If we as the ECA have well-founded findings, gathered by highly qualified people, based on a strong methodology, then we should stand up for them and not shy away because a Commissioner may not be satisfied. Likewise, if things are going well, we should clearly say so, and often they are going well.’ For Stef Blok, this goes right to the heart of ‘what we are on earth for’. ’We are all here with the same aim: bringing the truth to light in order to make the EU perform better.’

In his role as an ECA Member, Stef Blok sees it as an important responsibility to connect with national parliaments, not least the Dutch one. ‘This role is very important, because EU policy is made not only in the European Parliament but also in the Council. And national ministers are controlled by national parliaments.’ He explains that he has participated in many Council meetings on various topics. ‘There is a monthly parliamentary debate for each Dutch minister participating in a Council meeting about the agenda for that meeting. And for these debates, ECA reports are crucial.’ He says that his private office follows the agenda. ‘If my private office staff see a debate on an issue where the ECA has produced a report in the past two or three years, we send a letter to the parliamentary commission in the Netherlands, referring to the ECA report that may be useful for the discussion they have with the minister in question. This involves considerable work. Apart from that, each year we present the ECA’s annual reports, including the Statement of Assurance. Any reports just published I will post, for example, on LinkedIn.’

In addition, he has regular contacts with the media. ‘Sometimes they will call me themselves because they want a comment in Dutch on a special report, and I will ask the coordinating colleague whether they are okay with me commenting on, for example, Dutch radio. This was the case with our special report 28/2022 on SURE. I also provided a comparative analysis between the RRF and cohesion funds, and I have twice had a meeting with Dutch journalists covering the EU, pointing them towards our schedule for special reports to be published this year.’

In his hearing before the European Parliament in June 2022, Stef Blok pleaded for a more performance-based approach to the EU budget. He still takes that view, stressing that the practical implementation of such an instrument is crucial, and also referring to the RRF. ‘Regarding the RRF, the ECA published special report 21/2022 in September last year, containing our assessment of the practical implementation of this performance-based instrument. Also, our 2021 annual report covered the RRF, and we published a comparative analysis with cohesion that we provided regarding the RRF in review 01/2023. There, we made relevant — and also somewhat worrying — remarks about whether long-due reforms were actually included, whether targets and milestones are clear enough and measurable, and about the fact that there was insufficient clarity about what will happen if these targets and milestones are not fully met. Another remark relates to the European Commission relying very much on national controls, while the Treaty and the Financial Regulation oblige the Commission to take care to ensure that European taxpayers’ money is well spent.’

Besides the RRF, there is another potentially major audit task for the ECA around the corner, relating to EU money spent in relation to the war in Ukraine. Stef Blok foresees work for the EU in this area, and hence for the ECA. ‘We all hope that peace will return to Ukraine as soon as possible. But even if there is peace soon, the challenge of rebuilding the country is enormous. It is up to the politicians to decide in what form. But it is quite likely to involve a huge amount of money.’ He explains that this will probably include non-financial programmes, such as strengthening the judiciary, and fighting corruption. ‘And for all of that, the ECA will be called upon again to do our ‘bread and butter’ work. And here too, we have no other option but to be clear and honest, as we were in our special report 23/2021 on EU programmes fighting corruption in Ukraine, also relating to the rule of law. As an ECA Member, I have to contribute to bringing the facts to the fore, even if they might not be very pleasant.’

Aiming for impact

When it comes to his ambitions for the future, Stef Blok is clearly motivated to highlight the results of the ECA’s audit work wherever possible. ‘As I said, when we adopt our reports, we must be self-confident and defend them with all our strength. Furthermore, to be effective, we not only have to be good, but also to say so. Building on my experience as a parliamentarian and as a minister, the media are very important here. Politicians are very much driven by press reports. Both parliamentarians and commissioners will be far more motivated to improve those things that have to be improved if there is press coverage.’

This is why he identifies one of his core duties as making sure that the press is aware of what the ECA does. ‘I also think we owe it to the general public — they pay our salaries. But they will not read the Official Journal. We owe it to them to bring out the facts. And we are a public institution. For me, this means that we must be relatable — we should do our utmost to show the public what we are doing.’ He stresses that this should be done in a factual, non-sensationalist way. ‘You can also put it the other way: if nobody is aware of our reports, what is the point of our work? What is our added value then?’

For Stef Blok, the task for the ECA is huge. ‘Because those new instruments, such as the RRF and energy policies, are new, they will have unavoidable teething trouble, and unavoidable pressure from all sides, which we have also discussed. I am reminded of the famous adage “May you live in interesting times.” We do live in interesting times, but this also places a huge responsibility on our shoulders.’



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