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EU supreme audit institutions reacted swiftly to COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most disruptive health crises the world has ever seen, with a major impact on societies, economies and individuals everywhere. Among its many impacts, the pandemic has also considerably affected the work of EU supreme audit institutions (SAIs). They reacted quickly and have allocated substantial resources to assessing and auditing the response to the crisis. The Audit Compendium issued today by the Contact Committee of EU SAIs provides an overview of the audit work carried out in relation to COVID-19 and published in 2020 by EU SAIs.

The impact of the pandemic on the EU and Member States has been substantial, disruptive and highly asymmetric. Its timing, extent and exact nature, and the response to it, have varied greatly across the EU, but also regionally and sometimes even locally, concerning public health, economic activity, labour, education and public finances.

In most areas severely affected by the pandemic, the EU has only limited power to act. This is partly because competence for public health is not exclusive to the EU, and partly because there was little preparedness or initial consensus among Member States on a common response. Due to this lack of a coordinated approach, national and regional governments acted independently when putting in place prevention and containment measures, when procuring equipment or when setting up recovery packages and job retention schemes to mitigate the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. Nevertheless, after a difficult start, the EU and Member States seem to have improved their cooperation to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic caused a multidimensional crisis that has affected nearly all areas of public and private life,” said European Court of Auditors (ECA) President Klaus-Heiner Lehne. “Its consequences on the way we live and work in the future will be significant. As viruses do not care about national borders, the EU needs the means to support the member states. It remains to be seen whether we have learned our lessons, including the need for better co-operation.”

The SAIs of the member states and the ECA have quickly undertaken many audit and monitoring activities. In addition to the 48 audits completed in 2020, more than 200 other audit activities are still ongoing or planned for the coming months.

The Compendium released today offers a general introduction to the pandemic and a summary of its effects on the EU and member states, including the responses it triggered. It also draws on the results of audits carried out by the SAIs of Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden and the ECA. 17 reports (out of 48) published in 2020 are summarised, covering five priority areas: public health, digitalisation, socio-economic response, public finances and risks, and the general response at different levels of government.

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Background information

This Audit Compendium is a product of cooperation between European SAIs within the framework of the EU Contact Committee. It is designed to be a source of information for everyone interested in the impact of COVID-19 and the SAIs’ pertinent work. It is currently available in English on the EU Contact Committee website, and will later be available also in the other official EU languages.

This is the fourth edition of the Contact Committee’s Audit Compendium. The first edition on Youth unemployment and the integration of young people into the labour market was published in June 2018. The second on public health in the EU was issued in December 2019. The third was published in December 2020 on Cybersecurity in the EU and its member states.

The Contact Committee is an autonomous, independent and non-political assembly of the heads of SAIs of the EU and its member states. It provides a forum for discussing and addressing matters of common interest relating to the EU. By strengthening dialogue and cooperation between its members, the Contact Committee contributes to an effective and independent external audit of EU policies and programmes.

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HERA: First step towards the establishment of EU FAB, a network of ever-warm production capacities

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The Commission has published the Prior Information Notice, which provides vaccine and therapeutics manufacturers with preliminary information about the EU FAB call for competition, planned for early 2022. The objective of EU FAB is to create a network of ‘ever-warm' production capacities for vaccine and medicine manufacturing that can be activated in case of future crises. EU FAB will cover multiple vaccine and therapeutic technologies. To be operational at all times, the participating production sites are expected to ensure availability of qualified staff, clear operational processes and quality controls, allowing the EU to be better prepared and respond to future health threats. EU FAB will be able to quickly and easily activate its network of manufacturing capacities to meet demand for vaccines and/or therapeutics needs, until the market has scaled up production capacities. EU FAB will form a key component of the industrial dimension of the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), as announced in the Communication Introducing HERA, the next step towards completing the European Health Union, on 16 September. The Prior Information Notice on the EU FAB is available here.

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European Commission

Poland ordered to pay the European Commission half a million euro daily penalty over Turów mine

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The European Court has placed a daily fine of €500,000 on Poland to be paid to the European Commission over its failure to respect an order from 21 May to stop extraction activities at Turów open-cast lignite mine, writes Catherine Feore.

The mine is located in Poland, but is close to the Czech and German borders. It was granted a concession to operate in 1994. On 20 March 2020, the Polish climate minister granted permission for an extension to lignite mining until 2026. The Czech Republic referred the matter to the European Commission and on 17 December 2020, the Commission issued a reasoned opinion in which it criticized Poland for several breaches of EU law. In particular, the Commission considered that, by adopting a measure allowing a six-year extension without carrying out an environmental impact assessment, Poland had breached EU law. 

The Czech Republic asked the court to make an interim decision, pending the final  judgment of the Court, which it granted. However, since the Polish authorities failed to comply with its obligations under that order, the Czech Republic, on 7 June 2021, made an application seeking that Poland be ordered to pay a daily penalty payment of €5,000,000 to the EU budget for failure to fulfil its obligations. 

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Today (20 September) the court rejected an application by Poland to overturn the interim measures and ordered Poland to pay the Commission a penalty payment of €500,000 per day, one tenth of what was requested by the Czech Republic. The Court said that they were not bound by the amount proposed by the Czech Republic and thought the lower figure would be adequate to encourage Poland “to put an end to its failure to fulfil its obligations under the interim order”.

Poland claimed that the cessation of lignite mining activities in the Turów mine could cause an interruption in the distribution of heating and drinking water in the territories of Bogatynia (Poland) and Zgorzelec (Poland), which threatens the health of the inhabitants of those territories. The court found that Poland had not sufficiently substantiated that this represented a genuine risk.

Given Poland’s failure to comply with the interim order, the Court found that it had no choice but to impose a fine. The CJEU has underlined that it is very rare that a member state brings an action for failure to fulfil obligations against another member state, this is the ninth such action in the history of the Court.

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€7 billion for key infrastructure projects: Missing links and green transport

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A call for proposals launched under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) for Transport programme is making €7 billion available for European transport infrastructure projects. The majority of projects funded under this call will help to increase the sustainability of our overall transport network, putting the EU on track to meet the European Green Deal objective of cutting transport emissions by 90% by 2050.

Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean, said: “We are massively increasing funds available for deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure, to €1.5 billion. For the first time, we are also supporting projects so that our trans-European transport networks are suitable for civilian-defence dual-use and improve military mobility across the EU. Projects funded under yesterday's call will contribute to the creation of an efficient and interconnected multimodal transport system for both passengers and freight, and the development of infrastructure to support more sustainable mobility choices.”

The EU needs an efficient and interconnected multimodal transport system for both passengers and freight. This must include an affordable, high-speed rail network, abundant recharging and refuelling infrastructure for zero-emission vehicles, and increased automation for greater efficiency and safety. Further information is available online.

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