Guiding principle should be policy implementation, not policy talk – including when auditing EU migration policy

Interview with Bettina Jakobsen, ECA Member and Dean of the External Action, Security and Justice Audit Chamber

European Court of Auditors
10 min readDec 11, 2023
Bettina Jakobsen

By Gaston Moonen

While migration and asylum issues relate to many policy aspects, much of the funding related to EU action in this field comes from the EU budget for external action and security. Within the ECA, the External Action, Security and Justice Audit Chamber carries out most of the audit work in this area. After several years in this audit chamber, ECA Member Bettina Jakobsen has dealt with audits on migration not only in her role as Dean, but also as rapporteur for various reports relating to EU migration issues. In this article, she explains the ECA’s audit approach for this key policy area, the possibilities and constraints when auditing this complex topic, and which aspects the ECA will cover in upcoming years.

Various audit topics competing for limited audit resources

When discussing how migration relates to the overall tasks of the External Action, Security and Justice Audit Chamber, Bettina Jakobsen explains that migration issues have been a topic of attention, including within the ECA, since the 2015 refugee crisis. ‘Since then, the situation has evolved, with COVID also having had a big influence on our work, but as the ECA 2021–2025 strategy states, mass migration is considered “a newly arising challenge” in the priority area of European security and values.’ At the same time, she underlines that migration has to compete, from an audit perspective, with various other relevant topics the audit chamber is responsible for, leading to fewer reports on migrant issues for the time being. ‘We make a selection of audit topics based on aspects like maturity, the amount of expenditure, risk assessment and audit coverage, as we cannot audit the same policy area all the time. We have to spread our resources. From my perspective it is important that we look at whether a topic is “auditable” and mature.’

She underlines that if ECA stakeholders have a specific interest, the ECA may not necessarily jump into the topic straightaway. ‘It might be on the “waiting list” for some time to become more mature. A significant part of our audits relates to the examination of funded projects, where we would like to see that some activities have taken place, in order to assess the performance of the implementation and the sustainability of the projects.’ She adds that migration topics compete with topics such as cyber security, defence issues, EU external actions and development aid. ‘It is all a question of how our chamber and the ECA overall prioritise. The war in Ukraine is becoming a big topic also, from an audit perspective. There is simply a lot of demand on our resources.’

Since migration touches upon many policy aspects, our audits typically focus on a particular dimension of the policy area. ‘For external border issues, we have had the border control audit, our audit regarding Frontex and the audit assessing Europol’s actions regarding migrant smuggling. And of course, support to cross-border cooperation in the neighbourhood. All different elements but falling within the same “heading”, that is external borders on the EU’s doorstep.’ In this respect, other headings relate to issues such as root causes or reception facilities, relocation and return of migrants.

Data are key, including when implementing migrant policy

When asked about the key findings in all these reports touching upon different aspects of migration, she indicates that they frequently relate to insufficient needs assessments, lack of operational capacity, insufficient coordination and the availability and use of reliable data to steer actions. ‘It is crucial to get the right data, at the right time and in an appropriate fashion. But the European Commission may reply that the system is not designed to deliver data on issues such as cost-efficiency, as the relevant systems have been set up for different purposes. Another issue is documenting the reasons for decisions. In several reports we note that a new initiative was to a large extent a politically motivated decision. In such cases, ensuring the subsequent documentation that the decision was justified and supported by good reasons, based on needs, has proven difficult at times.’ She mentions the European Trust Fund for Africa as an example: ‘The reasons and needs for setting up a huge new fund rather than using already existing tools could have been better documented. Sometimes the “symbolic act” of creating a new big thing can seem almost more important than clearly establishing its objectives. But money alone does not always solve the problems.’

Referring to special report 19/2021 on Europol support to fight migrant smuggling, she identifies another key issue, which is that of intra-operability, also highlighted in special report 20/2019 on information systems for border control. ‘Sometimes the system at EU level and national level, and even between different EU bodies, were not linked. The systems could not talk to each other. Data protection rules also turned out to be an impediment for efficient cooperation between EU bodies acting in the same areas but unable to share information.’ She refers to Europol and Frontex and their exchanges, where it would be logical to have more cooperation regarding migrant smuggling. ‘But our audit found that there were various legal restrictions on data sharing.’

Project maturity as a criterion

For the ECA, as the EU’s external auditor, the timing of when to look at a policy area is important. ‘I spoke about the maturity of projects. We recently published our special report 21/2023 on the Spotlight Initiative on violence against women. The Spotlight Initiative had actually been on our “good ideas” audit list for a couple of years, but we had to wait for the initiative to become mature so that we could really examine advanced projects and assess their achievements in terms of improving the situation for women and girls.’ Another reason she gives for postponing or speeding up an audit may be an expectation of a new legislative decision.

Bettina Jakobsen underlines that maturity mainly relates to the implementation, not the political discussion of the topic. ‘For example, take the politically sensitive topic of pushbacks in migration. We can only look into it if there is EU expenditure involved. For some policies it is the member state that is responsible, and there it is the national audit institution that can undertake audit action.’ When asked if this may trigger possibilities for cooperation between national audit institutions and the ECA, Bettina Jakobsen replies that, in her experience, such cooperation works best when it focuses on knowledge-sharing via networks such as the Contact Committee of the EU’s supreme audit institutions. ‘The EU Financial Regulation requires the ECA to provide its audit reports within a certain time limit. This can be rather difficult if we have to cooperate with national audit institutions, as the required coordination takes time. This is one constraint for such cooperation.’ She adds that other constraints might be differences in audit mandate and audit capacity.’

The envisaged new Migration and Asylum Pact, now under discussion also with the European Parliament following agreement in the Council in June, sets out increased expenditure levels regarding migration and new instruments. The Dean underlines that this may indeed have an impact on the ECA’s audit activities, but it is too early to tell. ‘The agreement is not there yet, but once it is, we will analyse its consequences for our work. We will also continue to cover compliance in migration expenditure in our annual Statement of Assurance work.’

She points out that a prudent audit analysis would also have to be made for any agreements concluded between the EU and non-EU countries on the reception of migrants, such as the recent agreement with Tunisia. ‘As auditors we look backwards, after the expenditure has occurred. We carried out an audit on the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, published in 2018, and we are currently doing an extended follow-up on that audit. The agreement with Tunisia has a different basis with more elements of macro-economic assistance and it needs to be reviewed on its own aspects and merits.’

Another topic linked to migration, currently being audited, relates to the integration of migrants into the EU. ‘My colleague Viorel Stefan is responsible for an audit in this area, but it is in the early stages. Here we also looked at the topic’s maturity, waiting for some time because there was not that much visible progress in implementation, also due to proposals being frozen, etc.’ Other audit chambers may also touch on migrant issues. ‘For example, my colleagues in the audit chamber assessing cohesion expenditure are currently examining whether member states deployed EU FAST-CARE funds (Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe) effectively to support refugees fleeing from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.’

Auditing aid to address human tragedy

The current European Commission wants to address the situation that leads to tragic images of boat refugees suffering on the Mediterranean Sea, including through its search and rescue coordination activities. For Bettina Jakobsen, the ECA could come into play if significant EU expenditure is involved. ‘We need to see EU expenditure spent on actual activities, and not just an expressed commitment to act. This complimented by identified risks and the potential value an ECA audit might have to its stakeholder. These are basically the same criteria as for any other audit we might do.’

The ECA Member points out that the ECA is currently doing an audit which also involves human rights issues, a topic she finds very important. ‘We are currently doing an audit on the EU Trust Fund for Africa, looking at human rights, a core value of the EU. My colleague Hannu Takkula is responsible for this audit. Our stakeholders in the European Parliament requested this aspect to be covered, which we have taken on board.’ She adds that this audit directly relates to addressing root causes for migration, a key issue in the whole migration challenge. ‘Look at what happens in the US, people not only coming from South America on foot to cross the border, but even from Afghanistan and Syria, keen to cross the ocean. It is a long and often dangerous journey for a migrant.’

Bettina Jakobsen also refers to another upcoming audit in her audit chamber that indirectly relates to migrant issues, including possible root causes. ‘We will soon start an audit on whether the European Commission’s delivery of humanitarian aid under remote management, through its Directorate General ECHO, is well justified, effective and efficient. This can also relate to places migrants regularly come from and the reasons why they flee.’

The aspect of human suffering can make the issue of migrant policy and its implementation a difficult topic to audit. ‘If you are auditing issues relating to emergency aid, you need to have a thick skin as well as sensitivity. Our auditors may visit refugee camps and other places where human suffering is very visible. The deathly earthquake in Turkey earlier this year affected projects that we had planned to visit in the course of our follow-up audit of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. In that situation we needed to give the relevant actors the time and the space to manage the immediate emergency, before going on-the-spot to assess the impact of the earthquake on EU funded projects.’

Bettina Jakobsen expects other hardship encounters for ECA auditors, for example when assessing EU expenditure and its implementation in Ukraine. ‘There we will also see what war can do to a country. And the amounts predicted to help the country recover are enormous, also in relation to the EU budget.’

Migration to remain on ECA audit programme

As to the new Migration and Asylum Pact, once there is an agreement on the table, the ECA may be asked to provide its opinion, as it has for other draft legislation. ‘For the various opinions we have provided so far, for example relating to the proposals on the Recovery and Resilience Facility or to the ongoing work relating to the proposed ‘Ukraine Facility’1, we have usually been invited to do so. Proposals linked to issues such as how you manage the EU budget, on accounting issues, financial regulations, for those an ECA opinion is mandatory.’

She explains that this is also the case for the opinion on the Ukraine Facility. ‘I think it is important that we are invited to provide an opinion on proposals that may affect our work or where we have relevant expertise to offer. But we should be prudent in terms of providing opinions on issues where we have not been asked for one, as we are not a political institution.’ She adds, ‘We have only a limited number of auditors, so we need to be careful how we use them.’ Future years’ work programmes are thus likely to touch on many different topics, including some linked to migration.

This article was first published on the 2/2023 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.



European Court of Auditors

Articles from the European Court of Auditors, #EU's external auditor & independent guardian of the EU's finances.