What's the hold up, Barnier?

by Rose Orlik

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24 Nov 2011

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BRUSSELS' AUDIT REFORM proposals were due to be presented in a press conference this week.

Internal markets commissioner Michel Barnier has led the charge, and his office told Accountancy Age more pressing matters had parliament otherwise engaged, delaying publication until 30 November.

Barnier's spokeswoman admitted it might be even longer, saying she "has not yet received final arrangements for next week".

The potential collapse of Greece, Portugal and other southern cousins is unlikely to be resolved in seven days, and all the time Barnier's radical agenda risks losing impetus.

Mid-tier firms have argued the delay has nothing to do with eurozone crisis, and everything to do with pressure from powerful anti-audit reformers.

BDO senior audit partner James Roberts said: "It's clearly a fabulous lobbying job. I think Brussels is pretty shocked and awed by the degree of lobbying."

Big Four voices suggested there has been substantial resistance from member states, claiming the far-reaching proposals have spurred politicians and big business into action.

Lobbying is really just another word for persuasion, and all interested parties have the right to reasonably influence the debate.

If the delay is simply down to Brussels' distraction by the foundering Euro, Barnier's supporters might have little to fear.

However, if the commissioner has met stalwart resistance to his plans and this is the reason for the postponement, change could be afoot.

When the draft reforms were revealed by Accountancy Age in September, experts' main observation was that all measures from Barnier's original proposal remained on the table.

At the time, Barnier's office suggested the draft was very close to the expected final version. However, yesterday a spokeswoman said: "We will probably see some changes. It's very normal in political debate to see some changes before proposals are finally adopted."

As Barnier stood by his reforms despite fierce early resistance, a climb-down now would still seem unlikely. There would have to be a lot of pushback to effect a u-turn at such a late stage.

If, as some experts maintain, Barnier has a personal vendetta against the Big Four, lobbying by them would probably fall upon deaf ears. Business interests are much more likely to be impacting events.

The UK Hundred Group of FTSE-leader finance directors has attacked Barnier's headline reforms, including pure audit firms, mandatory joint audits and mandatory rotation.

BusinessEurope, which represents 20 million companies across 35 countries, had equally trenchant things to say about the proposals, and their needling is likely to make MEPs sit up and take notice.

One person's lobbying is another person's participation in the political debate, and the fact that it has potentially been strong enough to push Barnier off course means his vision for audit reform is far from reality.

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