REPORT on the nomination of Stephanus Abraham Blok as a Member of the Court of Auditors

    17.6.2022 - (C9‑0150/2022 – 2022/0805(NLE))

    Committee on Budgetary Control
    Rapporteur: Markus Pieper

    Procedure : 2022/0805(NLE)
    Document stages in plenary
    Document selected :  
    A9-0180/2022
    Texts tabled :
    A9-0180/2022
    Debates :
    Texts adopted :

    PROPOSAL FOR A EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT DECISION

    on the nomination of Stephanus Abraham Blok as a Member of the Court of Auditors

    (C9‑0150/2022 – 2022/0805(NLE))

    (Consultation)

    The European Parliament,

     having regard to Article 286(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, pursuant to which the Council consulted Parliament (C9‑0150/2022),

     having regard to Rule 129 of its Rules of Procedure,

     having regard to the report of the Committee on Budgetary Control (A9-0180/2022),

    A. whereas, by letter of 8 April 2022, the Council consulted Parliament on the nomination of Stephanus Abraham Blok as a Member of the Court of Auditors;

    B. whereas Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control then proceeded to evaluate Mr Blok’s credentials, in particular in view of the requirements laid down in Article 286(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; whereas in carrying out that evaluation, the committee received a curriculum vitae from Mr Blok as well as his replies to the written questionnaire that he had been sent;

    C. whereas the committee subsequently held a hearing with Mr Blok on 15 June 2022, at which he made an opening statement and then answered questions put by the members of the committee;

    1. Delivers a favourable opinion on the Council’s nomination of Stephanus Abraham Blok as a Member of the Court of Auditors;

    2. Instructs its President to forward this decision to the Council and, for information, to the Court of Auditors, the other institutions of the European Union and the audit institutions of the Member States.

     


    ANNEX 1: CURRICULUM VITÆ OF STEPHANUS ABRAHAM BLOK

    Profile:

    Teamwork in finding solutions for complex societal challenges and the need for decent use of public means are important motivations in my working life.

     

    Professional:

    May 2021 - Jan 2022 Minister of Economic affairs and Climate policy

    2018 - 2021  Minister of Foreign and European affairs

    2017 - Oct 2017 Minister of Security and Justice

    2012 - 2017  Minister for Housing and the Civil Service

    2010 - 2012 Group leader VVD (Liberal) Tweede Kamer (Lower House)

    1998 - 2012 Member of Parliament for VVD, responsible for Finance,

    Economic Affairs and Social Affairs

     Co-initiator of two adopted laws on pensions and life insurance Chairman parliamentary investigation integration policy

    1988 - 1998 ABN AMRO Bank NV: starting as management trainee, followed by postings as branch manager, credit analist and senior account manager corporate banking

    1988  Internship Société Générale, Paris

     

    Societal:

    2017 - 2018  Chairman board of Trustees Council for accreditation

    2010 - 2012  Board of Trustees mental care group Rivierduinen

    2009 - 2012 Non executive board member Scholtens Groep BV (construction company)

    2009 - 2012  Board of Trustees Stedelijk Gymnasium Leiden (grammar school)

    2000 - 2010 Board of Trustees stichting Het Zuid Hollands Landschap (nature conservancy)

    1994 - 1997  Group leader VVD municipial council Nieuwkoop

     

    Education:

    1983 - 1988  Business Administration, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

    1977 - 1983  Stedelijk Gymnasium Leiden

     

    Languages:

    English, French Working level

    German  Basic


     

    ANNEX 2: ANSWERS BY STEPHANUS ABRAHAM BLOK TO THE QUESTIONNAIRE

    Professional experience

    1. Please list your professional experience in public finance be it in budgetary planning, budget implementation or management or budget control or auditing.

    2022 National Coordinator for Sanctions against Russia

    2021 Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Policy

    2018-2021 Minister for Foreign and European Affairs

    2017 Minister for Security and Justice

    2012-2017 Minister for Housing and the Civil Service

    2010-2012 VVD group leader in the Lower House

    1998-2010 Member of the Lower House for VVD (ALDE). Spokesperson on government expenditure, finance, economic affairs and social affairs. Chair, Lower House Finance Committee. Chair, Parliamentary Inquiry into Integration Policy. Co-tabler of private member’s bills on pensions and life insurance.

    1987-1998 ABN AMRO Bank NV, successively management trainee, branch manager, credit analyst and senior account manager (corporate banking).

    1987 Internship at Société Générale in Paris

    1983-1987 Studied business administration at the University of Groningen (degree awarded)

     

    Civil society activities:

    2017-2018 Chair, Board of Trustees, Council for Accreditation

    2010-2012 Member, Board of Trustees, Riverduinen mental care group

    2009-2012 Non-executive board member, Scholtens Groep BV construction company

    2009-2012 Member, Board of Trustees, Leiden Municipal Grammar School

    2000-2010 Member, Board of Trustees, Het Zuid Hollands Landschap Foundation (nature conservancy)

    1994-1997 VVD group leader, Nieuwkoop Municipal Council

     

    My professional experience in budgetary control and audit extends over my entire career. During my career at ABN AMRO, analysing financial information and audit reports was a crucial component of my work. When I was a Member of the Lower House, I examined the reports of the European Court of Auditors and the Netherlands National Audit Office and liaised with both organisations. As a trustee of various civil society organisations, I have been jointly responsible for managing public monies and for reporting on the use thereof. When I was a minister, I was responsible for drawing up and reporting on my budgets. Both the budgets and policy effectiveness were examined by the National Audit Office.

     

    2. What have been your most significant achievements in your professional career?

    The three most significant achievements during my professional career

     

    (1) When I was Minister for Housing, I carried out a major reform of the Dutch housing market during the financial crisis. It very much addressed the Commission’s country-specific recommendations for the Netherlands: reducing mortgage debt and promoting the middle segment of the rental sector.

     

    (2) In 2018, when I was Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, I was the originator of a European human rights sanctions regime. It came into force in 2021.

     

    (3) When I was a Member of the Lower House, I significantly strengthened the position of consumers in the area of pensions and life insurance through two private member’s bills. One law gave retirees a mandatory seat on pension fund management boards. The other law introduced competition for life insurers by making it possible for banks and investment funds to offer pension savings schemes.

     

    3. What has been your professional experience of international multicultural and multilinguistic organisations or institutions based outside your home country?

     

    Professional experience in international institutions

     

    Prior to my public-sector career, I worked at Société Générale in Paris and ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam. My client base included international businesses. When I was a Member of the Lower House, I visited the European Parliament and the European Court of Auditors to discuss issues of mutual interest. When I was Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, I had primary responsibility within the Dutch Government for national coordination and strategic design of the Netherlands’ policy on the EU. In that capacity, I was also responsible for presenting and accounting for the Netherlands’ contributions to the EU budget. I also had policy responsibility for the Netherlands’ input into the EU Multiannual Financial Framework. I attended the Foreign Affairs Council and the General Affairs Council on a monthly basis and also maintained frequent bilateral contacts with countries inside and outside Europe, the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. When I was a minister, too, I visited the European Parliament and other EU institutions on a number of occasions. An important topic during those visits, in addition to the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery and Resilience Facility, was the joint pursuit of greater transparency in European decision-making.

     

    4. Have you been granted discharge for the management duties you carried out previously, if such a procedure applies?

     

    When I was a minister, I was granted discharge each year for the budgets I managed. A report was drawn up each year, too, by the National Audit Office.

     

    5. Which of your previous professional positions were a result of a political nomination?

    I have been elected once as a municipal councillor and five times as a Member of the Lower House. I was subsequently made a minister on four occasions.

     

    6. What are the three most important decisions to which you have been party in your professional life?

     

    (1) Both as Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and then as Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, I had responsibility for the Fit for 55 decisions. That package of measures is crucial for the future at global, EU and national level. Both the impact at EU level and national implementation were and are complex. Success is crucial for combating climate change and for our energy security. It affects the lives of millions of people and is financially and technically complex.

     

    (2) Between 2010 and 2017, as group leader in the Lower House and in due course as a member of the Dutch Government, I was closely involved in designing the ESM and applying the Stability and Growth Pact. Many people in the EU had to make considerable sacrifices at the time. In many countries, including the Netherlands, that also led to social tensions and resistance. I personally put a lot of effort into developing the necessary measures and maintaining public backing.

     

    (3) Raising the retirement age in the Netherlands from 65 to 67. For years, in the light of the tight labour market and the sustainability of public finances, there had been recommendations, including from the EU and OECD, to make that move. Under the 2012 coalition agreement, on which I was a negotiator, it was decided to do so.

     

    Independence

     

    7. The Treaty stipulates that the Members of the Court of Auditors must be ‘completely independent’ in the performance of their duties. How would you act on this obligation in the discharge of your prospective duties?

     

    In the Netherlands, the nominee for membership of the European Court of Auditors is selected in an open procedure. That means that all candidates interested in the position have been assessed by an independent committee, their suitability for the position being assessed in the process. As part of that procedure, my candidacy has also gone through a rigorous independence review.

     

    For me, being independent as a Member of the European Court of Auditors means not accepting instructions from national governments, not holding offices in political parties, and not engaging in additional activities that could create the mere semblance of a conflict of interest. Should there be any seeming conflict of interest while I am discharging my duties as a Member of the European Court of Auditors, I will report it promptly to the Ethics Committee and the President of the European Court of Auditors and, if necessary, I will stand aside from the activity concerned.

     

    I will continue to exercise prudence in engaging in activities after my term as a Member of the European Court of Auditors has ended, so that I can continue to conduct myself with complete integrity and discretion and safeguard the reputation of the institution.

     

    8. Do you or your close relatives (parents, brothers and sisters, legal partner and children) have any business or financial holdings or any other commitments, which might conflict with your prospective duties?

     

    No. Neither I nor my direct family have any business or financial holdings that could lead to a conflict with duties at the European Court of Auditors.

     

    9. Are you prepared to disclose all your financial interests and other commitments to the President of the Court and to make them public?

     

    Yes. I am prepared to report my financial interests to the President of the Court of Auditors and make them public?

     

    10. Are you involved in any current legal proceedings? If so, please provide us with details.

     

    No. I am not involved in any current legal proceedings.

     

    11. Do you have any active or executive role in politics, if so at what level? Have you held any political position during the last 18 months? If so, please provide us with details.

     

    I have not held any political office since 10 January 2022. The offices I previously held are listed in my answer to question 1.

     

    12. Will you step down from any elected office or give up any active function with responsibilities in a political party if you are appointed as a Member of the Court?

     

    I do not currently hold any political office, and nor do I intend to return to political office.

     

    13. How would you deal with a major irregularity or even fraud and/or corruption case involving persons in your Member State of origin?

     

    Approach to irregularities/fraud/corruption involving persons from my own Member State.

     

    I will deal with such cases in exactly the same way as cases involving persons from other Member States or third countries in line with zero tolerance policy on fraud and corruption. I will forward cases of suspected fraud to OLAF and/or the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. In this process, I will support the audit teams as much as possible in cooperation with the Legal Service and the President of the European Court of Auditors.

     

    Performance of duties

     

    14. What should be the main features of a sound financial management culture in any public service? How could the ECA help to enforce it?

     

    The main features of a sound financial management culture in a public service.

     

    Public monies must be both collected and used transparently and with democratic oversight. Prior to use, the goals to be achieved must be made as explicit as possible and there must be informed decision-making. During and after a budget period, both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the resources used must be independently assessed. Public funds should be used sparingly and efficiently. Persons with responsibility for using and auditing public funds must themselves also exercise the necessary transparency and restraint in the performance of their duties.

     

    In addition, it is of the utmost importance that expenditure be lawful. I therefore see a crucial role for the European Court of Auditors in fostering lawful spending. Each Member State should make its financial management arrangements in such a way that it has ‘in control status’. That means, among other things, well functioning accounting systems, clear manuals and working methods, sufficient control mechanisms and the existence of knowledge and expertise with regard to financial transactions. These are public funds; there is a high level of accountability. A soundly set-up financial system is, to my mind, a vital condition.

     

    In a broader context of internal control, efforts must be made to ensure transparency, segregation of duties, adequate staff training, periodic assessments of how internal control arrangements are working, and timely application of corrective measures. Digitalisation affords considerable scope for providing better access to certain control systems or to simplify them or make them more cost-efficient. Making use of new technologies can ensure better coordination between the different actors involved in the control chain, as well as better real-time management of a larger batch of transactions. The technology dimension should also be sufficiently reflected in the financial management culture.

     

    The European Court of Auditors, as an independent external auditor of the EU, is the ideal institution to make recommendations on the financial management of all EU institutions and the functioning of their internal control arrangements. In the process, it could focus more on systemic auditing rather than on auditing individual transactions – on country-specific or programme-specific findings rather than on EU averages. The report of the European Court of Auditors should be written in clear language so that citizens and Parliament are clearly informed about how EU actions have been carried out, citing not only weak points but also good practices, and so that a dialogue can emerge that feeds into the legislative process. The European Court of Auditors can advocate a more performance-based approach to the EU budget, encouraging more simplified forms of financing (e.g. flat-rate payments), identifying overlapping EU funding sources or reviewing intended policy objectives. It can provide an overall assessment of the management framework and control systems in the EU budget, including as regards the extent to which they are proportionate and reasonable.

     

    15. Under the Treaty, the Court is required to assist Parliament in exercising its powers of control over the implementation of the budget. How would you further improve the cooperation between the Court and the European Parliament (in particular, its Committee on Budgetary Control) to enhance both the public oversight of the general spending and its value for money?

     

    Improving cooperation between the European Parliament and the European Court of Auditors.

     

    The European Parliament and the European Court of Auditors, alongside the Commission, play a very important role in ensuring that public funds are used lawfully, efficiently and effectively. In part, our citizens will base their confidence in how the European Union operates on their confidence in the European Parliament and the European Court of Auditors. I therefore regard sound cooperation between them as essential. From my own experience as a parliamentarian, I know that it is crucial for Members of Parliament and the audit institution to be in touch with each other often and intensively. As a result, the members of the audit institution are well aware of the information needs of Parliament and how best to meet them.

     

    In that respect, both the content and timeliness of reporting are important. As regards content, the audit report of the European Court of Auditors must be able to provide specific answers to questions put by Parliament and, in particular, by the Committee on Budgetary Control. Accordingly, not only can the audit subject be determined in consultation with the Committee on Budgetary Control, but, at the start of the audit, all questions from the Committee on Budgetary Control can be collated and consolidated in a parliamentary request. As a Member of the European Court of Auditors, I will give that procedure my personal backing.

     

    In terms of content, the European Court of Auditors’ audit report must also provide the Committee on Budgetary Control with more relevant information, specifically as regards financial and compliance auditing. In the process, the European Court of Auditors can make better use of its knowledge of different programmes and control systems to assess risk of fraud and inform the Committee on Budgetary Control accordingly. Moreover, the European Court of Auditors can further support the increasing use of performance-related information in the discharge procedure and develop an appropriate framework and terminology for discussing performance and EU added value.

     

    As regards timeliness, the audit report of the European Court of Auditors could be more synchronised with the discharge procedure and the legislative process within Parliament, especially in connection with different types of report (financial, compliance and performance reports). More thought could be given to informal contacts with the Committee on Budgetary Control and the groundwork that takes place ahead of the formal discharge procedure, thus further increasing the efficiency of the procedure. According to the Treaty, the European Court of Auditors may also deliver an opinion at the request of another EU institution; and that is often done when a new legislative proposal is made. As a Member of the European Court of Auditors, I will advocate a more active approach, namely that the European Court of Auditors should follow the legislative process as part of its remit and prepare for a possible opinion earlier in the process.

     

    16. What added value do you think performance auditing brings and how should the findings be incorporated in management procedures?

     

    Our citizens expect public policies to be effective in addressing the societal challenges they face. To assess effectiveness, it is crucial that performance audits be carried out. By making it clear in advance that a performance audit will be carried out in a particular policy area, it can be directly determined at the outset what the objectives of the policy area are and how they will be measured. As a result, giving advance notice of a performance audit will ensure from the start of a policy programme that the focus is on using resources effectively and efficiently. I see an opportunity here in cooperating with national audit offices. Together we can work on an (ex-ante and ex-post) assessment framework for policy efficiency and effectiveness. This could also be combined with research into broader welfare analyses in order to gain greater insight into the impact of EU policy on society and thus contribute to joined-up policy deliberations. When I was Minister for Foreign Affairs, I drew attention to that dimension.

     

    17. How could cooperation between the Court of Auditors, the national audit institutions and the European Parliament (Committee on Budgetary Control) on auditing of the EU budget be improved?

     

    Improving cooperation between the European Court of Auditors and national audit offices and the European Parliament

     

    Much European policy is also conducted by the Member States under the scrutiny of national parliaments and audit offices. It is therefore crucial that Members of the European Court of Auditors maintain frequent contact with national parliaments and audit offices. It goes without saying that I have worked intensively in recent years with parliament and the audit office in the Netherlands. I see it as my duty to establish intensive contacts with other national parliaments and audit offices too. In the process, I see opportunities for faster and smoother exchange of information, so that all institutions involved can assess audit results on an equal footing. As regards controls, such cooperation can help prevent duplication of audit work and thus reduce the audit burden. It can also help form a more balanced view of EU policies in the national context. If this cooperation can be further extended to audit offices’ multiannual work programmes, the programmes can also be better coordinated so that the use of audit resources at European level can be more strategically balanced.

     

    Especially in an NGEU/RRF context, cooperation between the European Court of Auditors and national audit offices must be further bolstered in the years ahead. The European Court of Auditors will have to factor the shift of powers from the Commission to the Member States into its audit methodology. In connection with combating fraud, too, the European Court of Auditors and national audit offices should jointly look into the high take-up rate envisaged for the early implementation years and into the associated risks of fraud.

     

    The European Parliament has also carried out a number of important audit operations over the last few years, e.g. the Frontex report. To date, there has been relatively little audit-related cooperation between the European Court of Auditors and the European Parliament, one reason being that the legal framework does not expressly make provision for such cooperation. Nevertheless, I think that such cooperation could be mutually beneficial, especially in terms of better access to information and a better tie-in with the legislative process. As a Member of the European Court of Auditors, I will be open to developing such cooperation.

     

    18. How would you further develop the reporting of the ECA to give the European Parliament all the necessary information on the accuracy of the data provided by the Member States to the European Commission?

     

    Further development of reporting by the European Court of Auditors

     

    (1) When I was Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, I endeavoured at all times, together with the European Parliament, and scored successes in the process, to make EU decision-taking more transparent and expand publication of EU documents. I intend continuing with that effort as a Member of the European Court of Auditors.

     

    (2) I also see an opportunity to make greater use of open data sources and digitised audits.

     

    (3) I view clear reporting for the public as a non-stop task. Information about the Court's work should be easily accessible and have a direct bearing on the issues facing our citizens.

     

    Other questions

     

    19. Will you withdraw your candidacy if Parliament’s opinion on your appointment as Member of the Court is unfavourable?

     

    For my part, I will do my utmost to secure a favourable opinion on the basis of the answers given to this questionnaire and during the hearing. The Dutch Government has nominated me on the basis of a public selection procedure. Should the opinion of the European Parliament give cause to do so, I shall enter into consultations with the Dutch Government about my candidacy.


    PROCEDURE – COMMITTEE RESPONSIBLE

    Title

    Partial renewal of the European Court of Auditors (2022) - NL nominee

    References

    07888/2022 – C9-0150/2022 – 2022/0805(NLE)

    Date of consultation / request for consent

    8.4.2022

     

     

     

    Committee responsible

     Date announced in plenary

    CONT

    2.5.2022

     

     

     

    Rapporteurs

     Date appointed

    Markus Pieper

    16.5.2022

     

     

     

    Date adopted

    14.6.2022

     

     

     

    Result of final vote

    +:

    –:

    0:

    20

    6

    0

    Members present for the final vote

    Gilles Boyer, Lefteris Christoforou, Ryszard Czarnecki, José Manuel Fernandes, Isabel García Muñoz, Jean-François Jalkh, Joachim Kuhs, Ryszard Antoni Legutko, Claudiu Manda, Markus Pieper, Sándor Rónai, Tomáš Zdechovský

    Substitutes present for the final vote

    Sophia in ‘t Veld, David Lega, Marian-Jean Marinescu, Mikuláš Peksa, Tsvetelina Penkova, Sabrina Pignedoli, Antonio Maria Rinaldi, Simone Schmiedtbauer, Ramona Strugariu, Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel, Michal Wiezik

    Substitutes under Rule 209(7) present for the final vote

    Herbert Dorfmann, Alexandra Geese, René Repasi

    Date tabled

    17.6.2022

     

     

    Last updated: 20 June 2022
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