The European Commission seems to be changing its chief accounting officer like Henry VIII changed wives – but a good deal faster. The fresh young bride in the exalted position now is Brian Gray, appointed in December, to take up his duties at the beginning of this year.
Gray comes to the post « as a result of a Commission policy decision to implement practical steps of modernising its accounting to clean up control systems for the EU’s structural funds, under which various zones receive taxpayers’ money to help improve economic standards. He is also a former official at the court of auditors, the body that a couple of months ago referred to « weaknesses in the design of the accounting system on which the Court has repeatedly commented in the past ».
A qualified chartered accountant, and British, the new post is an upgrade in rank for Brian Gray. According to EU insiders, Gray has a reputation for being as « professional » as possible, within the constraints imposed upon him, and negotiating the internal conflicts better than most to get what he wants.
« His appointment sends a signal to the troops – here’s somebody with cred » said one top auditing official. Gray moves from director (A2) to deputy-director-general (A1), almost the highest grade a civil servant can hold in the European Commission. Previously the chief accountant role was always graded at director level. The appointment is the fourth to the post in just over a year. At the end of 2001 the person carrying the burden of managing the 98 billion euro EU accounts was Jean-Pierre Vandersteen, who has since moved to a senior management role at the Ispra EU research and development centre near Milan.
Then, on 1 January 2002, came firebrand outsider Marta Andreasen, who says she was appointed with the intent of at least some insiders, to kick honest life into an accounting system, which since 1994 had been failing to clear audit without qualification. What she found was bookkeeping often done on spreadsheets in the Commission DGs, followed by an inadequate system that merely consolidated unsound figures from the regions.
But Marta did not last long. Neil Kinnock booted her out in May for refusing to sign the 2001 accounts, which was followed by her sensational letter alleging foul play by senior Commissioners who, she claimed, were intent on capitalising on new EU financial rules. She said she could not sign the accounts, as she believed that the system was such that it could conceal fraud. She is now undergoing a staff disciplinary process being pushed through by Kinnock, while considering standing as an MEP. There are some who would like the Commission to show a magnanimous side, and reward her for her genuine efforts at financial spring-cleaning. But if the 1999 whistle-blower, Paul van Buitenen is anything to go by, the Commission’s attitude to whistle-blowers seems to be to kick them hard, kick them where it hurts, and go on kicking. Stepping quietly into the footsteps of Marta came Mark Oostens, who had originally qualified as a commercial engineer.
When Oostens accepted the hot seat, he, like Brian Gray, was given a boost in rank, to director. However, like King Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, Oostens soon felt unwanted.
Henry VIII’s notorious progress through his wives started with marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1509, whom he divorced in 1527. By the time he had had Anne Boleyn executed, it took till 1539 before he married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, (who only lasted until 1540 anyway, when she was divorced). In other words, from the end of wife number one to the start of wife number four took the much maligned King around 12 years. The parallel with the Commission is, every year of good King Harry’s wedded bliss accounts for a month. The next step in the saga will be the discharge of the accounts for 2001 by the European Parliament – which could make for an exciting March.