There is a little of the detective in every auditor. Most prefer Inspector Morse to Dirty Harry as their role model, but every auditor’s heart beats that little bit faster at the thought that it might be them who uncovers the ‘big one’. So it should come as no surprise that the European Union’s biggest constitutional crisis has been provoked by an auditor.
Paul van Buitenen is an unlikely hero. Greying, bespectacled and quietly spoken, he probably typifies most people’s idea of an accountant. But his action in sending a dossier of irregularity and fraud to every member of the European Parliament was anything but typical. He is suspended on half pay not for doing his job but for telling the stakeholders. In any UK company which has taken Cadbury half seriously, his action would amount to bypassing the audit committee and going straight to the board: a serious step, but then so is the scale of the alleged audit.
Unlike a limited company, however, the EU has no clear lines of accountability to its stakeholders, which is why van Buitenen’s action is so significant. Europe may have a single currency but its institutions are still treaty-bound and largely unresponsive to the wishes of the people of Euroland. Against this background, his actions, however extreme, serve to spectacularly vindicate the auditor’s role as the guardian of the interests of the disenfranchised, whether they be voters or shareholders.
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