‘EU citizens need to know the ECA addresses their concerns’
Interview with George Hyzler, ECA Member since 1 October 2022
By Gaston Moonen
Since 1 October 2022 George Hyzler is ECA Member, nominated by Malta, succeeding Leo Brincat. Feeling predestined to serve, as a lawyer, as a politician, he is very well aware of risks and challenges when in public office. The more so since he served, before becoming ECA Member, as Malta’s Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. Not surprisingly he considers that the ECA is not only about audits but also a standard setter, also when it comes to ethics and integrity.
The work ECA does is not sufficiently well known
Having spent almost six months in the ECA George Hyzler is eager to share one of his key impressions he got as a new ECA Member. ‘The work carried out by the ECA that is so important is not well known to the average EU citizen.’ He explains that one may know that the ECA exists and have a vague idea of what it does. ‘… but the impact of its reports, the level of detail, and how topics of importance are chosen, not only from an auditing perspective but also from a public interest perspective is not known.’ Ultimately, also, citizens need to have the comfort that the EU institutions are working in their interest and that there is proper scrutiny as to how their tax money is spent.’
He observes that in general people might not like to be placed under public scrutiny.‘ But in reality it is extremely important, as an auditee, to have the comfort that what you are doing is also being checked. The role of the auditor is that of exposing errors and weaknesses in the work of the auditee, to avoid the same thing happening in the future. We do not take decisions that are directly enforceable and therefore our work takes the form of recommendations that are generally speaking, adopted and implemented.’
Driven by law, serving in politics
George Hyzler is a lawyer, not only by training but also by ‘vocation’, as he puts it. ‘I was a very active lawyer, I was the president of the legal profession.’ His choice for law, however, was to a large extent determined by his love of politics. ‘I made up my mind to be a lawyer when I was barely fourteen years old. Even at that age, I had realised that law is the best training for a politician.’ He explains that he actually comes from a family of medical doctors who were also politicians, for generations. ‘So I was to a certain extent directed in that way and I knew precisely what I wanted to do.’ He sees his law background as an advantage because, as a politician, apart from being a representative of the people, one is also a legislator. He points out that lawyers make up the single largest profession in political circles. With a smile he adds: ‘I must admit, when I told my father that I intended to be a lawyer and not a doctor, he nearly had a heart attack. The trauma was only mitigated by the fact that I would follow in his footsteps in politics. He had served as a member of Parliament and a government minister himself.’
‘As a student, I was always very active in student committees, president of the student representative council, member of University Council. I always occupied these positions since I was very young. The writing was on the wall.’ George Hyzler explains that he only briefly interrupted his legal profession when he served as a full-time parliamentary secretary for five years, an executive function. ‘Otherwise as a member of parliament, I was still a practicing lawyer. I left the profession formally in 2018 when I became Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. I have 34 years of legal practice.’
George Hyzler explains that what attracted him initially to go in politics has remained with him all his life. ‘It is this idea of service. There is a certain degree of similarity between law and public life. These are two professions where you have to have a strong sense of service . Both in law and politics or public life in general, it is even more important, because you have to put the individual before your own personal gain. Of course, in all professions there are ethical rules that you have to follow. Unlike in business, politics and law should not be driven by the profit motive. ‘Even as the president of the Chamber of Advocates, I would constantly remind young lawyers that the profession is not a business, this is a profession where one should be of service to others and money should not be one’s primary motivation.’
Following his graduation as a lawyer George Hyzler followed a post-graduate course in European Integration at the Europa Institut of the University of Amsterdam and from then actively supported Malta’s bid for EU membership. ‘Despite being a British colony until 1964, we had strong democratic values and a robust civil service culture, which was important, of course; but after independence, there was a period where these values were being relaxed. We also had problems with transparency and accountability. One of the advantages of European membership, was to have a bit more reassurance on this front as well.’ He observes that even though human rights are mainly safeguarded by the European Court of Human Rights which is a Council of Europe institution, the EU as a political and economic union has an interest in ensuring its member states abide by a certain set of rules. ‘Once you join, you have no choice; you have to stick by them. In my view, EU membership would guarantee that whichever government would be in power, those rules would still have to be respected.
I believe that across the political divide, there is consensus on this, and I can state confidently that in Malta there is now close to unanimous support for EU membership.’
Higher ethical standards
George Hyzler has observed a change to the positive also in terms of accountability and transparency since Malta’s EU membership. ‘Take the role I was appointed to as Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. The Maltese government must have felt the need to set up the post also because of pressure from the EU and other international organisations — such as GRECO¹ and the Venice Commission² — but mainly the EU. We have seen major improvement across the board in Malta as a direct result of EU membership.’
He explains that by accepting that appointment, in October 2018, he was exposing himself to public scrutiny. ‘My nomination required a two-thirds majority in Parliament and I was appointed unanimously. I was expected of course to be independent and impartial despite having come through the ranks of the party then in opposition. In a way this made sense since the main responsibility is to hold government ministers, their persons of trust and parliamentarians to account and by far the largest percentage of complaints would be against government ministers and their persons of trust. ‘Also, the role extended beyond ethics. Apart from dealing with complaints on ethical issues and breach of the law, I also had the remit to look at abuse of discretionary power. Of course, if I were to come across a matter involving fraud and /or corruption, I’d have to refer the matter to the competent authorities and suspend the investigation.’
He points out that ethics are not the same across the board and are sometimes culturally defined. ‘Take the issue of declaration of assets by parliamentarians and ministers. In Malta, such declarations are not intended merely for identifying purposes of conflict of interest but also for transparency. Your assets are declared annually and any increase from one year to the next would have to be explained. Not just increases are relevant but also lifestyle. Where lifestyle does not correspond to declared assets I would request an explanation. In Malta, we had this code of ethics that you had to declare the assets of your spouse. It was removed, and I was strongly advising them to reintroduce it, and not only for the spouse, but also for the partners given that the situation now has changed and there is a high percentage of unmarried partners.’
Regarding the challenge for the EU on ethics the new ECA Member thinks that ‘The promotion of common standards, or common interpretation, is a good thing. The issue is more a question of what powers are given to the ethics committees of each institution and maybe a discussion between institutions — because we have similar goals, including promoting more trust within the institutions — could be useful.’ He explains he is in favour of more discussions between institutions on common standards with a view to raising those standards. ‘It would also help to have better common interpretation and application, without impinging on the individual responsibility of the institution itself.’ In this context he also believes that if the allegations about Qatargate are correct, no amount of ethical rules would have stopped that. ‘The thing is, when you enter public life, you undertake to abide by the rules of ethics’. This depends on you: you are either prepared to respect those rules or not. It goes beyond just making an undertaking! In any case ethical rules do not stop criminal behaviour. They do however discourage those with bad intentions from entering public life.’
George Hyzler explains that if you are prepared to submit yourself to transparency, to declare your assets, to having your life open, to not fearing skeletons in the cupboard, there is a higher chance of people that are not prone to corruption to be more attracted to that profession. ‘I don’t exclude that certain people are attracted to politics for personal gain, but you can try to catch them in the ethical net before they have the chance to become corrupt.’ He recalls one of the rules he tried to introduce in the code of ethics in Malta. ‘Which is that exposing yourself to situations of embarrassment is in itself a breach of ethics.’ He points to the leading role that is probably expected from the ECA. ‘You’re looked at from outsiders as the standard setter, so you have to be a bit holier than the Pope. You must be aware that you’re in the public eye and that you are expected to abide by higher standards.’
Diving into the world of cohesion
George Hyzler serves as a member in the ECA audit chamber Investment for cohesion, growth and inclusion. ‘Our audit chamber deals with many different things and I am very happy to be in this chamber. I am currently reporting member for two special reports. The first relates to Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE). We shall examine whether member states properly deployed cohesion policy funds to help the Ukrainian refugees. The second special report, state aid in times of crisis, shall examine whether the temporary framework introduced to allow exceptions during the crisis was not abused by member states, with negative effects such as the disruption of the internal market.’
In exercising his responsibilities, the new ECA Member wants to be involved throughout the process. ‘I want to be kept informed on developments, hear regular updates.’ He sees his role as mainly to supervise and ask questions that should be asked. ‘I will let the auditors work and challenge them as they go along. Because I also want to be able to take ownership of the report.’
At a more general level George Hyzler sees a task for him to bring ECA reports to Maltese stakeholders and the public in general. ‘As I said, I think there could be more awareness of the ECA work. During my first experience, presenting the annual report to the Maltese parliament, I realised that greater effort has to be made in order to make parliamentarians more aware of our work. One of the areas we should work on as an institution is being closer to the member states, the national parliaments, NGO’s, even to the ordinary citizen, and present our reports in a manner that can be more readily understood.’ Here, George Hyzler is aware of the impact reports have on trust in the EU. ‘Whereas it is important to highlight the auditees’ weaknesses in our reports, as expected of us, it is also important to highlight best practices.’
As to the role of the ECA regarding fraud and corruption, George Hyzler thinks that if the ECA stumbles across such cases it should refer the matter to the EU anti-fraud office (OLAF) or the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). ‘It is not our remit to investigate corruption. Reviewing systems is one thing, but for fraud prevention purposes. For the Recovery and Resilience Fund — the RRF — I think we have in that respect a serious challenge on our hands, as we are in unchartered territory from a compliance auditability point of view.’
Also, from a performance audit perspective, he thinks that the RRF presents quite some challenges. ‘To what extent can you tie the attainment of milestones and targets to EU funding? States are being given X amount of funding to carry out investments and reforms. There is no money tied specifically to reforms, they are not cost-based obviously.’ He gives an example relating to digitalisation: ‘If one of the reforms was to improve digitalisation and the member state introduced the legislation as planned, the funding must be released. However, this does not mean that the desired effects have been achieved.’
Another challenge for auditors will be auditing various aspects related to the rule of law. The ECA Member points out: ‘We also have to respect the boundaries between the world of politics and audit.’
Bringing the ECA closer to EU citizens
George Hyzler highlights that the credibility of the ECA as an institution is very important to come across well to the citizens. ‘In this respect the issue of ethics is particularly important to me, and I hope I can contribute here for the ECA.’ Furthermore, he notes that the European Parliament uses ECA reports very well. ‘We might want to take it one step further, which is to the citizens. EU citizens need to know we address their concerns.’ Therefore he thinks that audit topics that directly affect citizens are also important topics to be considered, besides focusing on processes and impact relating to big programmes. ‘Take for example the special report the ECA did on EU passenger rights.’
He concludes that bringing the EU, and particularly also the ECA, closer to citizens can have some long-lasting effects, recalling his own experience that added trust to his perception of the EU. ‘I attended a conference on European integration in London when I was 16 years old. I was in post-secondary school and was one of six students across Malta picked at random. The UK had just joined the EEC as it was then called. That experience must have left some mark on me, because I became a europhile at that age. Never would I have thought that Malta would be a part of the EU and the UK would have left.’ He does not hide his disappointment at the UK’s exit.
¹ The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) is the Council of Europe anti-corruption body.
² The advisory body of the Council of Europe
This article was first published on the 1/2023 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.