This article was first published in the April 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

‘I’m not a patient person,’ says Hilde Blomme FCCA, deputy chief executive of the European Federation of Accountants (FEE). It is hard to believe, given the glacial pace at which things happen within the European Union. Blomme herself recounts that the longest the European Parliament has taken to agree on a particular project is 29 years (in the case of unitary patents) and the shortest is 18 months. When she joined FEE as director of practice regulation in 2003, it was working on audit reform. ‘That was one of my first files,’ she says. More than a decade later, it still dominates the agenda.

‘You have to believe it’s still possible, see the incremental steps and not the big bang,’ she explains. ‘Take adoption of International Standards on Auditing in the EU, for example. FEE issued a paper in the mid-1990s advocating ISAs, and 20 years later we’re still not quite there; France and Germany can’t quite decide. In what FEE does, success is difficult to measure. It’s not quantitative, it’s qualitative, and what you make of it. Rome wasn’t built in a day – you have to believe that.’ 

FEE represents 50 institutes of accountants and auditors from 37 countries, including all of the 28 EU member states. It has a combined membership of more than 875,000 professional accountants working in practices of all sizes, in business, government and education. Its objectives include advancing the interests of the European accountancy profession, promoting cooperation among its members and keeping them informed of policy changes, contributing to relevant public policy developments and making representations on its members’ behalf to EU institutions and international organisations.

Seeking consensus

This all means, of course, gaining some sort of consensus on policy direction from its nationally and culturally diverse membership. All 44 full members of FEE (there are five associate members and one correspondent member) appoint a representative to sit on the Members’ Assembly, which provides high-level guidance on strategy to the FEE board, the body ultimately responsible for decision-making within the organisation. Blomme sits on the board along with FEE’s president, deputy president, chief executive and eight vice-presidents (who are elected by the Assembly, five of them from countries with permanent seats). 

The potential for disagreement or paralysis on any given topic is clearly significant, but FEE’s small team is, to use an understatement, adept at building consensus. ‘Constitutionally, we could vote on a position within FEE, but we never do,’ says Blomme. ‘If you vote you alienate a minority. That vote is the stick behind the door – we try to avoid it at all costs, and work by compromise and consensus. No one member state or view has a veto.

‘We discuss and re-discuss and try to narrow it down. All the time we’re moving away from country interests towards something that is workable. There’s always a bit that people can agree on – you start with that and build to where you want to go. You need to find your boundary because if you go further than that, you lose part of your audience. We aim to bring people together, to be encompassing and inclusive, but firm.’

She accepts that this approach is not always completely successful. ‘Take the case of audit reform, for example. Could it have been better? Yes, probably. There are a huge number of member state options because not everyone could agree. If the profession doesn’t speak with one voice in all member states, that’s what you get. So many interests were involved. The sharp edges were taken out, but not everything.’ 

Bridging the gap

It takes a particular type of person to excel at such a difficult role, but Blomme believes that her background in medium and large firms allows her to see the practical implications of policy decisions. Born and educated in Belgium, after a short-lived stint at a clearing bank (‘I found it quite slow’), she joined a mid-sized audit firm as an audit junior at the age of 25. 

She speaks three languages – Dutch, English and French – and bridging the language barrier has been a feature of her career. ‘At my first firm I was the only Dutch speaker in a French firm, so I spoke to clients in Dutch and my colleagues in French. I later moved to a larger firm in Brussels where I had bigger clients and I was often sent to represent the firm because I spoke English. That planted the seed of what I wanted to do.’

Blomme moved to Coopers & Lybrand in Brussels in 1994, not least because her husband’s job with Citibank made an overseas transfer likely. Two years later he was asked to move to New York and she got a secondment with Coopers (‘a completely different ball game’). They remained there for five eventful years, during which she qualified as a CPA and had her second child.

After New York came two years in London, before her husband was asked to move to Brussels. ‘I was looking around for a job and by coincidence came across FEE,’ says Blomme. She joined in September 2003.

‘It was a steep learning curve,’ she says. ‘It helped that I’d had international exposure, but I’d never worked in European policy areas. I had to learn about politics, the workings of the EU, European Parliament and Council. But I enjoyed it because I could combine the policy angle with hands-on practical experience.’

The bulk of FEE’s resources are concentrated into its four policy groups (corporate reporting, audit and assurance, tax and the public sector) and its SME Forum. There are clear objectives in some policy areas – in the public sector, for example, the ultimate aim is to encourage a move towards accruals accounting – but over the years, FEE has moved into a thought-leadership role. Recently it has published documents on the future of corporate reporting and on the role and responsibility of accountants in tax policy, both intended to kick-start a wide-ranging debate. In February 2014, its discussion paper, The Future of Audit and Assurance, urged the profession ‘to have the courage to question itself’.

‘We’ve had a tonne of comments and we issued a next-steps roadmap on the future of audit in December 2015,’ says Blomme. ‘We need to look at how we should evolve as a profession. What skills will we need? Where will we go with non-financial information? Some people believe that auditors will be irrelevant in 10 years’ time because a robot will be able to do the work. That’s not the way we want to see things evolve.’

While from the outside the EU is looking increasingly fragmented over immigration and the euro, she says that the repercussions are not particularly felt at FEE. ‘Not in the subject matter that we deal with.’ Even so, she has strong views on the prospect of the UK leaving the EU: ‘The UK has a great culture of debating. Other European countries just don’t and for that reason alone, a Brexit would be a huge loss.’ 

Liz Fisher, freelance journalist