Interview: Jules Muis

The former Ernst & Young senior European partner will throw a complimentary spotlight on the accountancy profession’s queries. But the Big Five will be disappointed if they expect him to swell the current number of accountants within EU institutions as he did at the World Bank, when he shipped in 125 within 12 months of taking up his post.

Muis, a modest accountant, has more pressing issues on his mind.

Evaluating risk
‘It is important that everyone is aware the EC is a medium risk business and inevitably will have to pick a number of calculated risks on how it spends money. I think there is a need for a very clear picture of the [EC’s] risk profile in understandable terms.’

Muis says this philosophy – which he calls ‘verstehen’, to understand – will show the institution the principle of evaluating risk before releasing funds.

‘The problem with bureaucracies is that they are process-driven and so you go through all the checks and balances but people forget at the end to ask themselves whether it makes senses,’ he explains.

For a start he will have to separate out the consenting bedfellows of the Commission’s financial control and its audit systems, while another priority will be to ‘out spook’ those responsible for the missing funds that sparked the European Commission’s mass resignation in 1999, following a zero-tolerance campaign.

‘But,’ says Muis, ‘the enemy will not only being the people running away with the money, but also the challenges facing the European Union.’

Muis says being in the business of economic development means recognising that, for political reasons, there are other reasons why money is given away in high-risk situations.

‘They are not waiting there for the accountants,’ he says.

Ideal background
Muis is a man who thrives on challenges and, unlike most that succumb to high-profile jobs in Brussels, the veteran ghost-buster arrives with a pedigree from his own profession. But though well armed, he admits he is yet to appreciate the full extent of what he is up against.

Even EC deputy president Neil Kinnock, who had a key role in his appointment, does not play down the task ahead for the armchair-philosopher.

‘The new, specialist Internal Audit Service will have to implement the relevant international standards of best practice in internal auditing and put the explicit recommendation of the Committee of Independent Experts into operation,’ Kinnock has said.

‘In short, internal audit in the future is part of a different system, not simply an adaptation of the previous system.’

Corruption buster
Muis’ track record at the World Bank, where he clamped down on corruption by creating a compliance system for the International Accounting Standards Committee, smacks of the right stuff and it has left the auditor with an obsession: the conspiracy of silence.

And it is this talent for weeding out corruption – festering through silence – which will be how Muis is judged.

However, the Dutchman’s seductive way of knocking backward institutions into the 21st century by getting people to talk could still flounder.

Despite uncovering an $800,000 expenses scam within four months of joining the World Bank, his bold formula for a European body which is still entrenched in its own culture of cover-ups and buck-passing, is untested.

The son of a police detective, while outspoken, Muis is realistic about corruption and where it begins.

‘Once you have money flowing, people will try and cream it off and keep the carousel going because as a bureaucrat they have an interest in it.

‘At The World Bank it took me a long time to discover the culture of people being judged by not causing waves,’ Muis says.

At the Bank withholding the truth, created a state of denial resulting in corruption with some members sending money to their own state shareholders.

‘If you have a legal department that says “don’t rock the boat”, then in the end you start believing your own statements,’ he warns.

Ready to make enemies at the EC
Muis admits he will make enemies in the EC, but understands he will have to act firmly especially with director generals, who are ultimately responsible for deciding whether or not to accept audit findings and recommendations.

‘We would want the DGs to not only be the first line of defence, but also the main line of attack.

‘They must know how to run their businesses properly, take responsibility for financial statements and not point the finger at anonymous figures. Director generals must realise they are not just programme managers but are CEOs responsible for everything.’

He adds: ‘They have to prepare their own annual reports, because if you can’t tell the world what you’ve done, then you probably don’t know. The implementation phase is not going to be a question of “whether” but “how”. I would be surprised if it was going to be clean.’

Kinnock, however, believes Muis will play a significant part in changing the ‘culture’ of the EC. Clearly Muis has charmed Kinnock. Yet his charm and humour has no doubt also played a role in his success. His knack at placing strangers immediately at ease is rare, and equalled only by his grasp of journalists’ needs. A request for tea in his sparse office soon degenerates into an afternoon with a bottle of French wine and only one plastic beaker.

‘Give him the bottle and I’ll take the cup!’ he ventures. Charm and dependability though seldom make amiable partners.

The corporate gameboy
Dutch-born Muis, 58, will have to draw from all the lessons learnt at the World Bank. There, he introduced the concept of ‘Coso’ – a system which throws prickly questions to a team of employees which they respond to by voting anonymously through a console.

He plans to introduce his ‘gameboy’ to the DGs as part of a blueprint to crack the ‘vicious circle’ of colleagues covering up discrepancies, which he fervently denies will be the bedrock of a whistleblower culture:

‘The role of a whistleblower is very different to a structural change agent that may have to be pushed to the limit so that the organisation cannot fall back on denial. If you’re on a boat and it keels to the left you don’t see how it moves unless you keep your eye on the horizon.

‘And in a corporate culture, if you go with the flow, then you get audit failures,’ he explains.

‘It’s about sharing problems, not people keeping their mouth shut. It’s not a question of telling the emperor that he has no clothes on, first you have to identify the emperor. Sometimes you need that wake-up call after a major calamity.’

Presently though, after just two months in the job, his department is still in ‘sleep’ mode. Consequently he’s in no rush, appearing as how one might assume his Calvinist father to be, waiting for a case to wind up.

Biding his time
Muis is waiting for the evidence – audits – to come in before he prepares his case, leaving him with a critical period, which, in Washington he filled by reading and growing potatoes in his front garden. In Brussels, the maverick accountant is getting to know his team of 40 staff and sitting in on weekly EC meetings where the Commission’s 20 policy-makers iron out their differences over regulatory drafts.

His spare time is taken up by learning golf and reading philosophy in a host country fondly remembered. It was the setting for his marriage to his American wife ‘on the battlefield at Waterloo’.

He strongly rejects the tag of warmonger in his new job and laughs at the suggestion that he is ‘Kinnock’s arse-kicker’.

‘I see myself more as an enabler,’ he offers.

Martin Jay is a freelance journalist working in Brussels.

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