‘The origins and effects of emergencies can be multiple’

Leo Brincat.

Unlike at the European Commission, where there is a Commissioner for Crisis Management, the responsibilities in this area at the ECA are not as clear‑cut. Not only between ECA Members, but also between audit chambers, and this has been even more obvious since the COVID‑19 crisis began affecting the work of a number of those chambers. There are good reasons for this, according to Leo Brincat, ECA Member in the ‘External action, security and justice,’ audit chamber, since emergencies can have many causes and effects. However, within the ECA, Leo Brincat has been responsible for several special reports relating to EU actions triggered by emergencies, such as recent reports relating to the migration crisis, and an opinion on the review of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism. On top of that he is the ECA’s ‘COVID‑19 knowledge node Member,’ with some ‘foresight insights’ at the time of the interview — October 2021 — into current COVID‑19 developments.

By Gaston Moonen

Emergencies in the wider sense

Leo Brincat has been an ECA member of the audit chamber in charge of external action, security, justice and defence policies and in that capacity has reviewed several draft reports concerning EU external action. Some of them are directly related to humanitarian aid topics, but perhaps even more to the consequences of emergencies, such as reconstruction aid or asylum/refugee issues. On the latter topic, he has been a rapporteur for several of them, most recently for special report 17/21 on EU readmission cooperation with third countries: relevant actions yielded limited results.

A report which stands out for him was special report 08/2021 on Frontex’s support to external border management: not sufficiently effective to date. ‘This was one of the more challenging topics in view of our objective of adding value and making suggestions for best practices. Another issue was the timing of publication, since at the time there was a lot of attention given to push‑backs, an issue which we did not cover in that audit but focused on Frontex’s contribution to EU’s integrated border management. Nevertheless, at the same time it got a lot of media interest, also because of this issue of push‑backs.’ He recalls that there were perhaps four times as many journalists following the presentation of this special report compared with what ECA special reports usually get. ‘And this report is still discussed at various fora at length. I recently gave a presentation to the Frontex Management Board, at their request, as well as to migration‑linked NGOs, who think Frontex is a monster. And in the European Parliament, to various members of committees focusing on migration issues. It is not a report nor a topic that dies a couple of weeks after the presentation of the report.’

Leo Brincat brings up the report since for him the rapid expansion of Frontex also relates to the issue of emergencies, albeit indirectly, i.e. dealing with the consequences of emergencies, which is different from dealing with the first needs. ‘I think that when you audit emergencies you have to adopt a different approach. Why? It is only natural that you have to show more responsiveness than usual, when you are tackling a ‘normal’ audit subject. You have to show speed and diligence and quick decision making.’ He also mentions the issue of flexibility, also in the sense of changing audit teams to actually free up the right resources for an emergency audit.

COVID‑19 boosting the ECA’s audits relating to emergencies

Another issue for him is complexity. ‘Unlike with ‘normal’ audit topics, if you are dealing with an emergency, there is a big probability that the auditee is very busy working on the emergency.’ He refers to the COVID‑19 pandemic and the ECA’s first audit activities regarding this issue. ‘We had to find the right balance between doing our work, working remotely, letting the Commission do its work without disrupting it. And at the same time, obviously, not avoiding our responsibility of being the guardian of EU finances by actually auditing the Commission. All in all not a very easy balancing act to perform.’

He observes that the whole COVID‑19 emergency has had quite an impact on the ECA’s work programme, following an in‑depth review of what could be done by the audit chambers. ‘Our choice of audits took into account quite a broad set of criteria, such as risks and materiality, but also the interests of our stakeholders.’ Regarding stakeholders he emphasises that, without ‘downplaying the importance of the Parliament as a natural partner,’ an important focus of the ECA is also the Council. ‘And I think we also have to address non‑institutional stakeholders, including the taxpayers, who might know little of what the ECA is all about. The COVID‑19 pandemic resulted in a very material increase in the EU’s financial resources dedicated to managing this crisis.’

According to Leo Brincat, the COVID‑19 crisis forced the EU and its Member States to deal with both the immediate and long‑term consequences of the pandemic, i.e. primarily the health and economic dimensions. ‘The pandemic increased the risks related to the achievement of certain EU policy objectives. From personal experiences, also when presenting our reports, I noticed considerably increased interest on the part of our stakeholders in issues related to crisis management at EU level. Quite frankly, usually I don’t think that this would have created interest among the public at large, but today this has risen very high on the European and, I would even say, global agenda.’

In this context, he refers to the State of the Union speech of President von der Leyen, with strong commitments towards preparedness for future crises. ‘I have no doubt about it. Without the pandemic, crisis management would not be considered of primary importance, as it is now. Compare the way Member States look at civil protection when it is a ‘business as usual’ scenario and now, after the recent flooding in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.’

According to Leo Brincat, the COVID‑19 pandemic will have long‑lasting effects. ‘I think that there is a strong commitment in various Member States that we should, as of now, even if the pandemic fades away, think very seriously about the next pandemics…to improve pandemic preparedness. Let’s be honest: the EU has been much more agile in its response than it was in the times of the financial crisis. That is at least my impression.’ However, having said that, he adds that one should not forget that in the first few months, many Member States were going in different directions, almost hindering and hampering each other. ‘Having a level of preparedness for any potential new pandemics is not just desirable but a must. Even if they do not happen in the short or medium term.’

Creating and using reference points for auditors

As important as he considers the COVID‑19 pandemic to be for developing a different mind‑set on crisis management, he thinks that attention was focusing on transparency in spending on emergency issues a lot earlier. ‘When you have an emergency situation, you cannot always be sure that the money is spent in a transparent way. And I can understand that concern, because, if you have a crisis situation, you might be tempted to bypass the rules of the game because of the emergency. I think that accountability for disaster‑related aid has been a sensitive topic for some time already. The turning point was not COVID‑19. Following the tsunami in December 2004, the global community of supreme audit institutions — INTOSAI — created a working group on disaster‑related aid leading to a number of audit guidelines being adopted in 2013, which were actually streamlined into one single guideline in 2020 — GUID 5330.’ He explains that this provides certain parameters to audit institutions when doing audits concerning disasters. ‘This does not necessarily mean they’ll solve all the problems, but at least if they are facing a situation which is linked to this type of aid, they are not starting with a blank sheet of paper, they have something to draw on as a reference point.’

According to Leo Brincat, such reference points, and the related contacts and discussion groups with other audit institutions, are most useful. ‘Within the ECA I was appointed to act as COVID‑19 liaison member with the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) and its regional branch EUROSAI. In fact, I have been engaging with them quite regularly, with institutions from Asia, the Gulf countries, the American audit office, etc. Through peer exchanges we try to base ourselves on lessons learned from these experiences.’

He observes that, despite the geographic diversity and the different ways COVID‑19 has impacted countries, there are many common threads between the various countries. ‘Interestingly, one of the ideas floated by most members arose because of the health dimension and economic impact of COVID‑19, the effects and the emergency situations that developed: we should not be working in a bubble. Instead, we should be engaging with international bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, etc. Obviously, not to prescribe matters to them but just to make sure we have a broader view than we would have stuck in the shelter of the audit community.’

ECA opinion on the Union Civil Protection Mechanism

A recent ECA publication relating to emergency issues was opinion 9/2020 on the Commission’s proposal for amending the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM). Here, Leo Brincat makes a link to a point he made earlier — to avoid cutting corners when it comes to financial management and accountability. ‘As usual, here too we tried to be as objective as possible and we did actually see a trade‑off between acting promptly and setting the right mechanisms for sound financial management. The Mechanism got a substantial budget increase, close to 150 %.’ He points out: ‘We have no problem with increases in budget, especially if they are aimed at boosting medical reserves, medical evacuation capacities or forming emergency medical teams. But we would have expected that at the end of the day, if value for money is still important, such a quantum leap should have been complemented by a needs assessment or at least a specific monetary framework being put in place. There was neither, and I think this was a shortcoming.’

Leo Brincat points out that the aim of the UCPM is to actually complement Member States’ initiatives, not vice versa, because public health primarily falls under national competencies. ‘This brings us to another important point — given all this, it can come at a cost when it is not planned well. One cannot just say ‘This is an emergency situation: let’s throw money at the problem.’ The EU already has the reputation — rightly or wrongly — that it starts solving problems by throwing money at them. If we are going to justify large increases in the budget, we have to make sure that this is not the case.’

He adds that the ECA applied the same approach regarding Frontex. ‘We did not say, ‘Frontex should not expand.’ We are not policy makers. We said that if Frontex has to expand so rapidly, are we sure that they did what they had to do by 2016? Because it is useless saying, ‘I want to expand my plans, but I have not even carried out my present mandate fully.’ He stresses that the ECA is looking at these things not strategically but from a purely budgetary point of view. ‘If the EU takes a policy decision to multiply an organisation’s budget several times, that is not for the ECA to decide. We just have to make sure that it is justified by substance in activities and not triggered by purely political criteria. Even in the case of Frontex, there were no feasibility studies carried out. When we probed, they said this was a political decision taken by the Council. ’

Overall, Leo Brincat concludes that even if there was an emergency situation — of which he has no doubt because the expansion was carried out in the wake of the 2015 migration discussions — one has to motivate and substantiate. ‘Simply saying ‘We have an emergency situation’ is not good enough. When we looked at this aspect for our opinion, we made a point: if you look at private sector finance and supply chain management, processes go hand‑in‑hand.’ He believes that, regarding the whole issue of civil protection, sound financial management needs to be integrated with rules and reporting. ‘For the simple reason that in emergency situations we cannot afford this to get bogged down in bureaucracy.’

Coherence in set‑up translates into better implementation

When discussing what all this means in practice, Leo Brincat is quick to respond. ‘Very simple. We feel that there have to be a priori well‑organised mechanisms wherever possible and the idea that they should be in place in the ‘finding’ processes too when action is needed. There has to be a clear definition of the role and responsibilities of different actors.’ For him actors go well beyond the level of the Member States. ‘It also concerns the level of the Commission.’

At the same time, he observes that, unless there is a political will and a spirit of collaboration on a common goal from the 27 Member States, things will not get off the ground. ‘We see it happening with the migration pact. The migration pact was and remains a work in progress so far, even though there are add‑ons as we go along. The fact is we had a migration crisis in 2015/16 and now we are talking about potential migration crises five years later and there are still no coherent, robust migration plans in place.’ He makes clear that the ECA is not saying that it has to be the proposed Migration and Asylum pact. ‘Once again, we are not policy makers, this needs the consent of the Member States. We are not saying that this is the ideal template, although we take note of various positive aspects of it. What we are saying is that on the basis of our special reports 08/2021 regarding Frontex and 17/2021 on cooperation on returns, there is an urgent need for a migration and asylum pact.’

He argues that not having a pact leads to concrete problems. ‘Let’s take the problem of people returning. We blame third countries for not cooperating enough, for not showing good will, etc. If you have a dysfunctional approach between Member States, who approach the same third country differently — say there is country X, a third country, and you have countries A, B, and C of the EU. If these Member States send three different signals in the way they approach third countries and if third country X is smart enough and knows there is disunity within the EU on this issue, it will cash in on this vulnerability, most probably by either raising the stakes or sending even more legal migrants. This will make a bad situation worse.’ He reflects that the EU has to offer some guidance to its Member States and has to make sure that there is a more coherent approach by the Member States. ‘Which is not easy!’

He sees an analogy with the COVID‑19 issues when, at the beginning, guidance was needed to have a more coherent approach between Member States but the prerogative was not with the Commission. ‘We see that also with the vaccinations. The Commission has been putting in a lot of money and urging very strongly that vaccination rates should be increased. But when you see the disparities between various Member States, one can understand why, as a consequence of COVID‑19, inequalities have grown further within the EU itself. That is unhealthy because it undermines the EU project itself and solidarity between its Member States.’

Effective public procurement processes in place before disaster strikes

When Leo Brincat refers to the various stakeholders the ECA has, he is also speaking about the non‑institutional ones. When it comes to humanitarian aid, one type of a non‑institutional player plays a very important role: the NGOs providing aid on the ground. Also for them, but not only, he thinks it is important to ensure that there are proper procurement procedures in place, in the limited timeframe available. This should be the case so that work can be done through these NGOs. ‘If you look at various ECA reports, the ECA has already drawn some conclusions and made recommendations, based on assessments which show that procurement procedures have already improved. ‘I’m not saying they have become optimal, but there has already been some improvement.’ For him this raises the question of what it means for public auditors. ‘How can they speed up further and improve these processes, especially in cases of emergencies? Improvements have already been made but there is still a lot of work to be done.’

He thinks that COVID‑19 offers ample examples of this. He refers to reports of poor procurement procedures in numbers of countries in relation to buying masks and protection equipment. ‘This shows that public auditors, whether they are dealing with NGOs or not, must help public entities to be ready and to apply the best standards for public procurement, even in emergencies. Prompt emergency response depends upon many factors, but if I had to single out one process — it is the underlying procurement process.’ He relates this issue back to the ECA opinion on the Union Civil Protection Mechanism. ‘We actually highlighted that the introduction of direct procurement actually has the potential to speed up the EU crisis response itself.’

Another issue is the joint procurement agreement. ‘There the Commission has actually coordinated and still coordinates the procurement exercise.’ He explains that there the Commission ‘surveys Member States’ needs, it drafts technical specifications, it organises the procurement procedure, assesses the tenders, awards the contracts, and then obviously Member States can place individual orders and purchase medical equipment under those contracts.’ He adds that, according to the Commission, direct procurement capacities allowed faster reaction at EU level, as it took about four weeks for overloaded Member States to actually launch their first procurement. ‘This was very critical. In our opinion 09/2020 we made that point. Such a move could have allowed the Commission to be quicker. Hopefully possible in similar situations in the future and obviously in full complementarity with one another.’

Leo Brincat points out that, as the external auditor, the ECA will have to keep on focusing on the compliance aspect to make sure that urgent action does not give rise to ineligible spending of funds. ‘As the ECA Member responsible for the COVID‑19 knowledge node, I am looking forward to the report which our audit chamber on sustainable use of natural resources is currently drafting on vaccine procurement. That should shed a lot of light on this issue.‘ He points out that the ECA is not only seeking to make critical assessments. ‘But over the last months we have seen many flaws in practice throughout the supply chain, and various instances of what and how the Commission could have done better. We also understand that a new task plan is also in the pipeline in this particular audit chamber on food security during the COVID‑19 pandemic. This should also be of great help.’

Disaster preparedness is essential

When discussing the concerns he has for the future regarding emergencies, he stresses the need for preparedness plans, also basing this on his contacts with INTOSAI and EUROSAI peers. He believes such preparedness is also necessary in view of some possible COVID‑19 pandemic scenarios, which he considers pertinent from a crisis management perspective. ‘Regardless of whether COVID‑19 goes away or increases again, I think we should be working on two levels. First, tackling COVID‑19 as it is. I think that encouraging vaccinations in non‑EU countries, especially in Africa, is not an act of charity but a necessity for global security. Because if, hypothetically, all Europe is vaccinated and Africa remains at its current level, it is going to be bad news for global security.’ He believes that, besides the humanitarian aspect, even out of self‑interest, it is important for the EU and the world as a whole to see that vaccination catches on.

The second issue for him is whether, with the lessons learned from the COVID‑19 emergency, it will be important for the EU — and the European Commission in particular — to see whether it has all the possibilities to act as it actually needs to, and has the required competences. ‘This also in view of the questions raised regarding the health portfolio: the pandemic might have brought some new insights.’ In this context, he refers to a book he is currently reading, called Shutdown, by Adam Tooze, analysing the challenges institutions and systems face in preparation for the next crisis.’ This book also goes into the humanitarian aspect of the pandemic, drawing comparisons between individual countries and highlighting successes and failures.’ Leo Brincat believes that, without downplaying the importance of the pandemic, there is quite a risk that humanitarian crises will increase, even if COVID‑19 goes away. ‘I read somewhere that even if we look at the hunger aspect of people affected by the pandemic, we are talking about 265 million people. So this might call for a reinforcement of the humanitarian aid budget.’

Emergencies and their roots

For Leo Brincat it is rather clear that emergencies have an impact on the ECA’s work programming. ‘In our work programme we will continue to assess the EU’s response to mitigating or alleviating the effects of COVID‑19.’ In this respect, he was pleasantly surprised by the resilience the ECA showed when shifting gears towards new audits relating to the pandemic. ‘To be honest, I was not expecting it to act so effectively. The shift we made, and the output we had, proved our worth: we operated in accordance with and adapted to the circumstances, especially since our work entails so much field work and for a number of months nobody was allowed to travel.’ He adds that, contrary to expectations, the ECA’s output did not suffer. ‘There were some delays obviously but overall output did not suffer.’

Currently, there are many humanitarian emergencies going on, with various concerns at the highest political level, be it on migration issues in Turkey or on the EU border in the east, or the chaotic departure from Afghanistan. Leo Brincat thinks it is important for an audit institution such as the ECA to focus on what happens on the ground, rather than at the political level. This may relate directly to humanitarian affairs or issues indirectly related to emergencies, or perhaps leading to them. ‘The origins and effects of emergencies can be multiple. Let me give an example. We are currently carrying out an audit on free movement to assess whether the Commission has taken effective actions to protect the right of free movement, including the functioning of the Schengen Agreement in the context of the COVID‑19 crisis.’

Another audit he sees as having links to emergencies, albeit more indirectly, relates to cybersecurity, and with a more preventive and preparedness character. ‘By doing an audit on how hack proof EU institutions are, we aim to assess the state of cybersecurity governance and readiness in the EU institutions and agencies to handle cybersecurity incidents. This impacts indirectly, but I think, with the cybersecurity issue coming more to the fore, you cannot think of real governance and of handling crisis situations if you don’t also factor in these considerations.’ Referring to the recent but short breakdown of Facebook and related platforms, he observes that a cyber-breakdown can have enormous economic and financial costs. ‘With severe consequences also from a humanitarian aid perspective.’

For Leo Brincat what is essential here is the interplay between various issues. ‘The worst thing that we, the ECA, can do is to work in silos. Today, actually, the blurring of lines is healthy. Between where responsibility begins and ends, because, conceptually, we have to think in terms of the big picture.’

This article was first published on the 3/2021 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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Articles from the European Court of Auditors, #EU's external auditor & independent guardian of the EU's finances.

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