Brussels gets serious about accounting.
Ever since Jacques Santer and his less than merry men and women were turfed out of the European Commission’s top posts 18 months ago, financial control has enjoyed a new status in Brussels, writes Julian Paleson.
And, for once, few of the changes have been cosmetic. Whether this will lower EU hostility in the UK remains to be seen: however, there can be little doubt that in Euroville, altruists are being replaced by accountants.
The early days of the EU when no-one was concerned about cost are fast disappearing. The EU’s first 40-odd years were almost entirely taken up with bringing about a spiritual end to the Second World War. The credo of the top people who ran the Brussels bureaucracy was quite simply ‘no more war’. Today, the ‘we must prevent another war’ brigade is rapidly being replaced by people for whom the last war was in the Gulf or in Chechnya.
Armed conflict between EU members has become as unlikely as war between Warwickshire and Wiltshire.
Instead of believing in heaven on earth, the EU is now putting its faith in angels with accounting expertise. A few years ago, the European institutions regarded accounting and auditing by and large as an Anglo-American preoccupation with trivial pursuits such as honesty and accuracy in financial affairs.
And to be fair, when compared to war, they are trivial pursuits: but times have changed.
The choice of Romano Prodi as European Commission president and of Neil Kinnock at the helm of the reform programme is a sure pointer of the way things are going. For Brussels insiders, the appointment of Michel Petite as Romano Prodi’s chef de cabinet – the most influential position in the EU civil service – is perhaps more significant still.
Petite, a brilliant Frenchman, once played a major role in the elaboration of the European accounting directives.
For the first time, there is someone in the highest reaches of the Brussels Eurocracy who knows the profession inside out. And Petite knows that supporters of both the europhobic and europhiliac camps are not prepared to see a repetition of the financial shenanigans that characterised the last European Commission.
Meanwhile, the European institutions are recruiting auditors at a rate that would have impressed Lord Kitchener. The appointment last week of Jules Muis, the dynamic former financial controller of the World Bank and head of Ernst & Young Europe, is another milestone in the EC’s financial management. Muis is what the EC needs to sharpen up not only its financial control but its overall attitude towards spending other people’s money.
The accountancy profession should rub its hands with glee. The reforms being implemented will go a long way to enhance the professional standing of accountants and accountancy in the EU.
And off the record, it seems more than likely that the demand for external accounting expertise will rise steeply as Brussels strives to meet the new standards it is setting itself.