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About us

The European Court of Auditors - fostering a transparent and accountable EU

As a European citizen, you can count on us.

We provide facts and figures to assess whether EU legislation, programmes and policies are working on the ground, including in your contry.

Checking that the EU is delivering

As the EU’s external auditor, we are the only European institution that independently examines what is happening on the ground across the Union, in the Member States and beyond. When we examine and assess EU policies and programmes, we ask three questions:

  • What did they want to achieve?
  • Did they achieve those objectives?
  • Did they deliver value for money?

Our independent audit reports and reviews offer valuable lessons and help identify best practice at all levels.

We also provide an objective assessment on the legal and regular use of the EU budget. We promote sound financial management, transparency and robust accountability. We also issue opinions on legislative proposals, which can be drawn upon during the lawmaking process.

More about the European Court of Auditors

Who we are

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) is the European Union’s independent external auditor. The ECA was established in 1977 and is one of the EU's seven institutions. We are based in Luxembourg and employ around 900 staff of all EU nationalities in audit, support and administrative roles. We operate as a collegiate body of 27 Members, one from each EU Member State.

What we do

Our auditors check that the EU is keeping its accounts properly and correctly applying its financial rules. They also check that EU policies and programmes are achieving their intended objectives and delivering value for money.

Our work helps to improve EU financial management and promote accountability and transparency. We warn of risks, provide assurance, indicate shortcomings and successes and offer guidance to EU policymakers and legislators.

We present our observations and recommendations to the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, and national governments and parliaments, as well as to the general public.

Our work programme

We select our audit tasks independently based on an assessment of the main risks to EU policy delivery and expenditure. When deciding on our work programme, we also consider potential public interest in our work and its likely impact.

During the selection process, we take into account the suggestions made by the other institutions and in particular by the European Parliament. Each year, we approach all the EP committees for suggestions and ideas. The EP’s Conference of Committee Chairs forwards these contributions to us.

The broad range of topics covered by our audit work allows us to provide independent, evidence-based, objective reports on key issues for the future of the EU. We highlight what works well and draw attention to what does not. In this way, we help to consolidate the democratic legitimacy and sustainability of the European Union.

Discharge of the EU Budget

Our work provides an essential basis for the annual discharge, the procedure by which, based on a recommendation from the Council, the Parliament decides whether the Commission has satisfactorily implemented the previous year’s budget. The European Parliament’s decision to grant discharge leads to the formal closure of the Commission’s accounts for a given year.

When deciding whether to grant, postpone or refuse discharge, the EP takes into consideration the Commission’s integrated financial and accountability reports along with our annual report and any relevant special reports.

During the public discharge hearings, the relevant Commissioners reply to questions from the EP Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT).

The purpose of our work

We present our findings to EP committees and delegations and, in particular, to the CONT Committee. This is an opportunity to discuss our findings and recommendations with the Parliament in the presence of the Commission or other audited bodies. We also present the results of our work directly to the Council. Our Members regularly travel to their respective Member States to present our publications to the national parliaments and other national authorities.

Our reports identify both shortcomings and good practice in terms of how EU policies and programmes are designed and implemented on the ground. Where necessary, we also recommend changes. The Commission, the Parliament, the Council, and national and regional authorities in the Member States can use our work to make improvements. These may take the form of changes to legislation or to regulations, better guidance or a new approach to policy or programme delivery. Over time, ninety per cent of our recommendations are accepted in full or in part. Fewer than five per cent are rejected.

Our audits

Performance audits

Our performance audits address the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of EU policies and programmes and examine whether the principles of sound financial management have been applied in EU revenue and expenditure. These audits cover a wide range of topics, but focus in particular on the sustainable use of natural resources, growth and inclusion, migration, security and global development, the single market, and an accountable, efficient EU. The results of our performance audits are published in special reports.

When auditing performance, we assess various aspects of the public intervention process, including inputs (financial, human, material, organisational or regulatory resources needed to implement the programme), outputs (programme deliverables), results (the immediate effects of the programme on direct addressees or recipients) and impact (expected long-term changes in society attributable to the EU’s action).

Stages of the audit process

Our performance audits are often complex and technical, and require significant resources. The main steps of the audit process are:

  • Multiannual and annual programming: determining audit priorities based on risk and policy analysis, and selecting audit tasks accordingly. This includes assessing the feasibility of an audit task proposal and its likely impact. Each year we launch between 35 and 45 performance audits.
  • Audit planning memorandum: setting out detailed audit steps to ensure the process is efficient and effective, setting the specific scope and approach of the audit, planning resources and milestones.
  • Audit field work: obtaining direct audit evidence on the spot from the EU’s institutions, agencies and decentralised bodies, national and regional authorities in the Member States and other recipients of EU funds.
  • Clearance procedure with the auditee: checking the facts with the audited body and confirming the quality of the findings.
  • Reporting: setting out the audit findings, conclusions and recommendations in a report, together with the auditee’s response. All our reports are publicly available.
  • Follow-up: after three years, checking the extent to which recommendations have been implemented.

Statement of assurance audits

Our statement of assurance is an annual financial and compliance audit exercise in which we audit the reliability of the EU accounts and the regularity of the underlying transactions. The findings and conclusions are published in our annual reports. We examine supervisory and control systems to determine whether the revenue collected and payments made during the financial year comply with the legal and regulatory frameworks in place.

Detailed testing of a representative sample of several hundred transactions takes place across all expenditure schemes and Member States, and is used to provide specific assessments of the different areas of the EU budget.

On this basis, we also estimate an error rate for the EU budget as a whole and for the specific assessments, as long as the samples in each area of expenditure are large enough. These error rates are calculated using statistical methods. They indicate the probability of irregular expenditure and are not intended as point estimates. Finally, our error rate estimate of irregular expenditure should not be equated with fraud.

Standards

We conduct our audits in accordance with the ISSAIs, the international audit standards issued by INTOSAI, the international organisation of supreme audit institutions. The principles and details of the ECA's audit approach are set out in a series of manuals, standards and guidelines, which apply the international standards to the specific EU audit context. They help our auditors to provide high quality, professional work, and to operate efficiently and effectively.

Our publications

Audit reports

Special reports

Special reports present the results of selected performance audits in specific policy or spending areas, or budgetary or management issues spanning several years.

Annual reports

Our annual reports contain the results of financial and compliance audit work on the European Union budget and the budget of the European Development Fund (EDF). They include the annual statements of assurance and cover budgetary management and performance aspects. We also issue annual reports on the EU’s 41 agencies, decentralised bodies and joint undertakings.

Opinions

Opinions are provided at the request of other EU institutions. They contain our views on draft laws under discussion that would have a significant impact on EU financial management.

Reviews

Reviews are based on our accumulated knowledge and experience. They cover different EU-related policy and management topics, and their objectives vary. They may provide scene-setting description and analysis based on our published audits, often from a cross-cutting perspective. We also use them to present our analysis of areas or issues we have not yet audited, or to establish facts on specific topics or problems.

Up until September 2019, our review publications were known variously as landscape reviews, briefing papers and rapid case reviews. They have now all been re-named ‘Reviews’, but remain searchable under their previous titles.

Audit previews

Audit previews (formerly known as background papers) provide information based on preparatory work undertaken before the start of an ongoing audit task. They are intended as a source of information for those interested in the policy or programme being audited.

Our audits

How is the actual audit work carried out?

The main steps of the audit process are:

• programming: determining multiannual and annual audit priorities based on risk and policy analysis, and selecting audit tasks accordingly.

• audit planning: setting out the detailed audit steps to ensure the process is efficient and effective, setting the specific scope and approach of the audit, planning resources and milestones.

• audit fieldwork: obtaining direct audit evidence, on the spot in the EU's institutions, agencies and decentralised bodies, national and regional administrations in the Member States and other recipients of EU funds. Audits are carried out using a range of methods such as reviews of documents and reports, direct questioning techniques such as interviews, expert panels and surveys, and analytical procedures such as multi-criteria analysis and benchmarking. Audited bodies are required to forward any document or information our auditors consider necessary for the purpose of the audit.

• clearance with the auditee: checking the facts with the audited body and confirming the validity of the findings. Facts and findings are cleared in several stages, including, where applicable, with audited bodies in Member States, third countries or international organisations.

• reporting: setting out the audit findings, conclusions and recommendations in a report, together with the auditee(s) response. All our reports are made public.

•follow-up work: assessing the extent to which recommendations have been addressed by the auditee(s), generally within three years after finalising the audit.

How long do your audits take?

Our target timescale, as agreed with the European Parliament, is to complete our selected audits in thirteen months, from the adoption of the detailed planning until the adoption of the report. Taking into account all the steps above, we regard this as very time-efficient, particularly since our reports also have to be published in 23 European languages.

What does “performance audit" mean? 

Our performance audits address the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of EU policies and programmes and whether the principles of sound financial management have been applied in EU revenue or spending. These audits cover a wide range of topics with a particular focus on the sustainable use of natural resources, growth and inclusion, migration, security and global development, the single market, and an accountable and efficient EU providing European added value.

How do you select your audit tasks?

We select our audit tasks independently using a rigorous annual selection and prioritisation process, based on a risk assessment covering the whole range of EU policies and the entire EU budget. We also take into consideration the input of institutional stakeholders, such as the European Parliament.

In addition, we adopt multi-annual strategies to implement long-term priorities concerning both audit fields and methods as well as our internal organisation.

What expertise does the ECA have to carry out specialised audits? Do you make use of outside experts?

Our audit staff have a broad range of professional backgrounds and experience in both the public and private sectors, including accountancy, financial management, internal and external audit, law and economics.  Where we need additional insight into a particular policy area – for example, banking supervision - we recruit specialised staff.

In addition, we make use of external experts with whom we discuss our audit planning and risk analysis and who may also contribute to the design and performance of selected audits and reviews.

In the Member States, some audits are also carried out in liaison with the national Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) and their auditors can join our teams.

Why do you carry out audits several years after the policy or programme implementation?

We think it is important that EU policies achieve their intended objectives and that spending programmes deliver value-for-money. We therefore need to allow time for projects and programmes being implemented and showing first results. Sometimes, depending on the policy and programme, this may take several years. This is why most of our audits and reviews are ex-post. Otherwise, we cannot make our assessment based on evidence.

How do you guarantee independence and objectivity for your audits?

Our audits are conducted in accordance with the code for quality control established by INTOSAI, the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions.  Our auditors are subject to the INTOSAI code for professional conduct.  Among other things, they are required to be free from circumstances or influences that may compromise, or may be seen as compromising, their professional judgement, and to act in an impartial and unbiased manner.

Similarly, the Treaty requires that our Members must be completely independent in the performance of their duties. This means that they must not seek or take instructions from any external source, they must refrain from any action incompatible with their duties and they may not engage in any other professional activity, paid or unpaid. If they infringe these conditions, the Court of Justice can remove them from office.

What happens to your recommendations after a report has been published?

The results of our work can be used by the European Commission, the Parliament, the Council, national parliaments and authorities in the Member States to make improvements in the way EU policies and programmes are implemented on the ground. These may take the form of changes to legislation or to regulations, better guidance or a new approach to policy or programme delivery.  Over time, some ninety per cent of our recommendations are accepted in whole or in part. Fewer than five per cent are rejected.

Do you follow up on them?

Yes.  Usually after three years, we check the extent to which our recommendations have been implemented.

Can you enforce your recommendations?

Our role is to provide advice through our recommendations, rather than to enforce them. 

If our audits find that money has been unduly paid and must to be recovered, the Commission has the means to enforce that, including in the case of EU spending programmes implemented by Member State authorities.

In those cases where we suspect fraud, we refer the matter to OLAF, the European Union's Anti-Fraud Office, who have their own experts. These are different skills from those of audit and we see the separation as a means of deploying those skills to their best effect. OLAF investigates the cases and, depending on the result, refers them to national prosecution services.

Subsequently, we follow-up what corrective actions have been taken by the Commission and OLAF or whether these cases, depending on the outcome of the investigations by national prosecutors, have led to judicial sanctions.

Our Members and our work with others

How are ECA Members appointed?

The Members of the ECA are appointed by the Council, after consultation with the European Parliament, following nomination by their respective Member State governments. Members are appointed for a renewable term of six years. They are required to perform their duties in complete independence and in the general interest of the European Union.

Do the Members work on audits themselves?

Yes. As well as being part of the College, Members are assigned to one of the five chambers, each specialising in different policy areas. These Chambers adopt most audit reports and opinions.

Each Member also has responsibility for specific tasks, primarily in the field of audit.  The audit work leading to a report is carried out by the chamber's auditors. The Member presents the report to the chamber and/or full Court for adoption, and then to the European Parliament and other relevant institutional stakeholders, as well as the media.

How do you cooperate with the European Parliament, the Council and national parliaments?

The fact that we decide and execute our work programme in complete independence does not mean that we work in a vacuum. Nor does it preclude us from reaching out to our institutional partners to hear what their information needs are.  We have developed a close relationship with the European Parliament in order to receive audit suggestions as early as possible in the planning process.  We also listen to the Council – the voice of the Member States – and indeed to Parliaments in the Member States themselves.  In recent years, we have received a considerable number of suggestions which were very useful and upon which we have acted. 

Naturally, we also maintain an ongoing dialogue with the European Commission, as the institution mainly responsible for the implementation of our recommendations.

How do you cooperate with Audit Offices in the Member States?

We have a very close working relationship with the Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) in the EU Member States, in the context of the EU Contact Committee and through bilateral contacts.

Auditors from EU SAIs may accompany us when we are carrying out audit fieldwork in their Member State.

We also exchange information and experience through our membership of EUROSAI and INTOSAI, the European and international organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions.

Do you take the work of others into account in your audit work?

Yes. The internal controls at the European Commission and in the Member States have been significantly strengthened in recent years, so that we are able to rely more on them when it comes to assessing the regularity of spending.  We are currently piloting an attestation engagement approach for our annual statement of assurance in the area of Cohesion policy.

This helps to promote accountability and further improve the management of EU finances.  We intend to expand this approach to all those areas of the EU budget where the necessary conditions are met and where such an approach is cost-effective.

Our Annual Report

What is the role of the European Court of Auditors as regards the EU budget?

Every year, we check the EU accounts and provide an opinion on two questions: whether the accounts are accurate and reliable, and to what extent there is evidence of money being received or paid out in compliance with the applicable EU and national rules.

This forms the basis for our statement of assurance, which we are required to provide to the European Parliament and the Council under Article 287 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

Is it true that the European Court of Auditors has never signed off the EU accounts?

No. We have signed off the accounts as reliable (given a 'clean opinion') for every financial year since 2007.  That means we concluded that the accounts presented fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of the EU and its results for the year.

As well as our opinion on the accounts, we are required to give an opinion – based on our audit work – on whether the underlying payments were made in accordance with the applicable rules.

One of the elements based on which we form our opinion is our estimate of the level of error in the audited population. Payments are considered to be erroneous if money should not have been paid out from the EU budget because it was not used in accordance with EU and/or national rules.

There has been an improvement in the estimated level of error in payments over the last few years: 2014: 4.4%; 2015: 3.8%; 2016: 3.1%; 2017: 2.4%; 2018: 2.6%.  Moreover, since 2016, a significant part of the audited expenditure was not affected by a material level of error. On this basis, we have issued a “qualified opinion" since then.

What is a “clean/qualified/adverse opinion"?

A “clean" opinion means the figures present a true and fair view and follow the rules of financial reporting.

A “qualified" opinion means that the auditors cannot give a clean opinion, but the problems identified are not pervasive, i.e. not present in the entire population.

An “adverse" opinion indicates widespread problems. 

What is a “material level of error"?

In audit terminology, a material level of error is a level of error that is likely to influence the decision of the intended users of the financial statements and the audit report.  Both we and the European Commission use a 2% threshold to determine materiality.

If, for example, the level of error was estimated to be 2%, does that mean that around €3bn of EU money was wasted?

No.  This approach can be misleading because there is an important difference between “error" and “waste".  In our testing, we check whether EU money has been spent for the intended purpose, whether the costs charged are calculated properly, and whether eligibility conditions have been met.  That is what the error rate estimate refers to.

Some of the errors involve payments which did not meet eligibility conditions: for example, incorrect area declarations by farmers, or support given for research by a company classified as 'small or medium', even though it was wholly owned by a large company.  In such cases, EU funds may still have had some positive impact and provided some benefit even though they did not fully respect the conditions relating to their use.

On the other hand, some legal and regular expenditure may still be wasteful, such as port infrastructure built without adequate regard to future freight levels.

Do the errors you find constitute cases of fraud?

In the great majority of cases, no.  Fraud is a deliberate act of deception to gain some advantage. Although cases of fraud can be difficult to identify during standard audit procedures, we find a number of suspected fraud cases each year in our audit testing. 

In 2018, we found 9 instances (13 in 2017) of suspected fraud out of approximately 728 transactions audited.  All these cases are reported to OLAF, the European Union's Anti-Fraud Office.

Why is the number of detected cases of suspected fraud in your Annual Report so low?

We are not looking for fraud; that is not our role as the EU's external auditor. When we do suspect fraud, we inform OLAF, the European Union's Anti-Fraud Office. OLAF investigates the cases and, depending on the result, refers them to national prosecution services.

Subsequently, we follow-up what corrective actions have been taken by the Commission and OLAF or whether these cases, depending on the outcome of the investigations by national prosecutors, have led to judicial sanctions.

Why do you not audit all the EU Member States for your Annual Report?

Our audit is of the EU Budget and the way it is managed by the European Commission; it is not designed to gather information on individual Member States. On the basis of our statement of assurance audit we therefore express an audit opinion on the regularity of EU revenue and spending as a whole. This explains why, at least in some areas of the budget, not all Member States are included in our audit sample every year.

At the same time, through our specific assessments, we provide more detailed information for the main spending areas on an annual basis.  ​