Retrospective reflections on the ECA meta-audit on the Western Balkans

September 2016 marked the publication of the ECA’s special report 21/2016 on the Western Balkans. More specifically, it was the release of the meta-audit on the EU Commission’s management of pre-accession assistance (IPA) to strengthen the administrative capacity in the historically and politically fragile Western-Balkan region. Marton Baranyi worked on the audit and its presentation as attaché in the private office of Szabolc Fazakas, then reporting Member for this report. He looks back, two years after publication and after the annual summit of the Berlin Process in London, identifying a number of takeaways from this performance audit even today.

By Marton Baranyi, Investment for Cohesion, Growth and Inclusion ECA Directorate

Purpose of a meta-audit

Special report 21/2016 has as title ‘EU pre-accession assistance for strengthening administrative capacity in the Western Balkans: A meta-audit.’ So the report labels itself as a meta audit. It is obvious what ‘meta’ means, ‘audit’ as well. But what is a ‘meta-audit’? This term overs a special audit product at the crossroads of a landscape review and a single-issue performance audit, covering a wide range of issues and clearly aiming at making specific conclusions and recommendations. In this specific case, the meta-audit on the Western Balkans, led by then reporting Member Zsabolcs Fazakas and head of task Dennis Wernerus, used already existing ECA Special Reports of the past ten years — such as the special reports on CARDS, Serbia, Kosovo*, Croatia etc. -, Commission evaluations and progress reports, as well as independent expert reports. However, and this has to be underlined, we also complemented the existing work of others with new performance audit work. We assessed 52 national IPA projects in the Western Balkans and three IPA multi-beneficiary programmes and undertook audit visits at the EU Commission and delegations, as well as to relevant ministries and IPA structures in the Western Balkans. The particular focus of the new audit work was on results beyond outputs in the field of rule of law and public administration reform. In this regard, this meta-audit was a rather unique audit amongst the external action related audits.

Example of a finding in the meta-audit: IPA I project results in the fight against corruption

Project against corruption, Albania

The purpose of the ‘Project against corruption in Albania’ was to support the Albanian government in implementing its anti-corruption strategy (2007–2013). Not only did it fail to deliver on measurable targets, but its sustainability was also affected by the fact that the national anti-corruption coordinator was not independent and coordinated policies at national and local level without adequate budget or staff.

State Commission for Preventing Corruption, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

This project aimed to strengthen the work of the main body responsible for preventing corruption. However, it did not address the fact that the State Commission for Preventing Corruption was not in a position to exercise its mandate effectively in the face of inadequate commitment by the national authorities, a lack of independence on the part of its senior management and insufficient resources.

Presenting the meta-audit on the spot

Furthermore worth mentioning is that the special report had an unusually wide coverage, not only in Brussels and in the media focusing on EU affairs, but also in the Western Balkan region itself. This was also due to the audit team’s efforts to present the report not only to the usual institutional players like the Budgetary Control Committee in the European Parliament and in the EP and the relevant Council formation, but also to stakeholders on the spot. Therefore, we the results of the meta audit for example during the European Union-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee (SAPC) meeting in Belgrade in September 2016, to the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) Board meeting in Sarajevo in October 2016 and to Members of the Parliament of Montenegro in March 2017.

The role of a regional approach

The report’s politically perhaps most important message (and last recommendation) is that the regional approach within the pre-accession assistance should be further strengthened. This is an extremely important recommendation for a region that is still characterised by ethnical, religious, and social tensions, and which had to endure hardship even in recent times due to the various crises linked to politics, economics, and migration. Regional approach therefore means that the EU does not support these countries exclusively on a one-by-one approach, but also supports and encourages a holistic regional approach within its pre-accession policy and funding. Regional approach in this context means enhancing inter-connectivity, regional cooperation, as well as strengthening administrative capacity in the region as a whole, notably through the Berlin process (see below) and several regional frameworks and organisations.

Luckily, there are already a number of regional initiatives in place, such as the already mentioned RRCC and the Regional School of Public Administration (ReSPA). The meta-audit covered these initiatives. Moreover, the trend seems to be favouring this development in recent years: the meta-audit reported that 23% share of the total IPA funding for the 2007–2013 period was used for explicit regional programmes, while this figure was 41.5% in 2017 alone.

Regional approach and the Berlin Process

Strengthening regional cooperation is also an important message of the Berlin Process. This initiative, launched by the German Chancellor Merkel in 2014, aims at stepping up regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and aiding the integration of these countries into the European Union. As the initiative officially states the process is taking place with support of the European Commission, international financial institutions and the Member States involved in the process — Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. It is supplementary to the individual countries’ institutional EU integration process.

This year, the annual summit related to the Berlin Process took place in July in London. Important to note is the Joint Declaration of the summit’s leading participants says that further progress in developing regional cooperation structures is welcome and commended. Without overestimating the meta-audit’s importance, it is good to see that we were thinking in the same direction as several leaders of the EU, namely in the direction of the necessity of a holistic approach towards the Western Balkans.

Signs of hope for a continueous peaceful neighbourship

It is clear that there is still a long way to go for the countries of the Western Balkans on the path towards the EU. However, contrary to previous times, where the difficulties prevailed, today, there are some signs of hope for a peaceful settlement of at least some of the tensions. These include solving the name debate at the upcoming referendum in Macedonia on the country’s official name and the bilateral negotiations on a peaceful land swap based on mutual understanding between Serbia and Kosovo. From our side, with all these activities and regional programmes, it seems rather likely that there will be another ECA audit covering the Western Balkan region.

Main conclusions of the meta-audit

The ECA concluded that the EU pre-accession assistance was broadly effective and that IPA I, the first ‘Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance,’ partly strengthened administrative capacity in the region, despite considerable shortcomings inherent to the national authorities in the Western Balkans. With regard to the Commission’s management, IPA I objectives were not always specific and measurable. Programmes and projects were based on needs but some beneficiaries’ assessments in the rule of law sector showed considerable shortcomings. The absorption of IPA I funding was hampered by weak administrative capacity in some countries and, in the case of decentralised implementation, strict requirements linked to the management of EU funds.

*This designation is without prejudice on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the International Court of Justice opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

This article was first published on the August-September 2018 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.



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