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EU urged to 'step up' fight against spending fraud

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, lacks a full picture of the spending fraud problem and takes too long to probe cases, the European Court of Auditors charged
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, lacks a full picture of the spending fraud problem and takes too long to probe cases, the European Court of Auditors charged AFP/File
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Luxembourg (AFP)

The European Union must "step up its fight" against spending fraud after falling short on prosecuting suspected fraudsters and recovering lost money, the bloc's spending watchdog said Thursday.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, lacks a full picture of the fraud problem and takes too long to probe cases, the European Court of Auditors charged.

"There is a clear need for the Commission, in cooperation with the member states, to step up its fight against fraud in EU spending," the Luxembourg-based ECA said.

It criticised a time-consuming approach that sees OLAF, the commission's anti-fraud office, launch probes that are often followed by criminal investigations by national authorities.

"Fewer than half of OLAF investigations have led to prosecutions of suspected fraudsters and resulted in recovery of less than a third of unduly paid EU money," the watchdog said.

The ECA said plans to set up the European Public Prosecutor's Office in 2020 are a positive step but voiced concern the EPPO cannot force the 22 participating countries to set aside resources to investigate cases.

It complained that the Commission has not updated its anti-fraud strategy since 2011 and lacked "comprehensive information on the scale, nature and causes of fraud."

EU budget commissioner Gunther Oettinger, who has proposed a 1.3 trillion euro ($1.5 trillion) budget for the bloc for 2021-27, said "there is nothing really new" in the ECA report.

"Most areas of improvement have long been identified and tackled already, or we are about to," Oettinger added.

Oettinger said the EU has proposed giving OLAF more investigative power, such as access to bank account details like that enjoyed by national authorities.

In the 2010-17 period, OLAF said it concluded more than 1,800 investigations and recommended the recovery of more than 6.6 billion euros to the EU budget.

In a successful case, OLAF said, an investigation concluded in 2017 exposed the misappropriation of 1.4 million euros in EU research funds designed to build emergency response hovercraft prototypes.

It said Italian authorities are following up OLAF recommendations by investigating people allegedly involved in the embezzlement.

The ECA called, among other reforms, for establishing a "robust reporting system" with information on the scale, nature and causes of fraud.

It recommended designating one of the EU's commissioners with leading anti-fraud efforts and adopting "a new comprehensive strategy" based on risk analysis.

The body suggested reconsidering "OLAF's role and responsibilities" in light of the EPPO, including giving it a "strategic and oversight role".

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