Opinion

No transparency please, were MEPs

One year after European Parliament President Antonio Tajani pledged to bring greater transparency to how MEPs are compensated for expenses, the noble process ended with a loud thump on the parliamentary floor.

Last night, the 15 members of the Parliaments governing body — a group that included Tajani — voted down measures that would have increased oversight of the so-called General Expenditure Allowance, a fund intended to be used by MEPs to pay for offices and other expenses.

The institutions 751 MEPs receive €4,416 a month on top of their salaries for expenses, as a lump sum, tax free. This adds up to nearly €200 million in taxpayer money per parliamentary term. These funds are intended to be spent for professional not personal reasons, but MEPs are not required to retain any records or disclose how the money is spent.

Tajani and his colleagues voted against making it mandatory for MEPs to keep receipts of their expenditures — something any business, organization or association has to do for tax reasons, if nothing else.

They voted against introducing audits of how MEPs spend their allowances, and against publishing audit reports — a practice that is customary when it comes to nearly any other type of public spending, with the exception of some military or intelligence expenditures.

What we have discovered is a brazen disregard of the rules.

They even voted against the mandatory return of any unspent funds at the end of an MEPs mandate.

The only thing that they managed to vote for was the bare minimum — keeping a separate bank account to receive general allowance payments.

They also revised the list of expenses covered by the General Expenditure Allowance, but their other decisions ensure that there will be nobody monitoring whether the MEPs follow these paper rules.

This shameful development was achieved by votes of the members of the conservative European Peoples Party in the governing body, including Tajani. Joining them was a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group and three out of five representatives of the Socialists and Democrats.

These nine men and women essentially voted to keep their second pay checks intact.

The message that the Parliament sent out is that the General Expenditure Allowance is a private matter for MEPs and MEPs alone.

The Parliaments audacious disregard for principles governing public spending in democratic societies is shocking, but it isnt unexpected.

As part of the MEPs Project, a loose collection of journalists from all EU countries, my colleagues and I have been trying to get to bottom of how MEPs are compensated for their expenses since 2015.

What we have discovered is a brazen disregard of the rules. Though the General Expenditure Allowance is predominantly intended to cover the rent and related costs of an office in an MEPs constituency, we found in 2017 that a third of the Parliament — 249 MEPs — either did not have a national office, refused to disclose where it is or failed to answer questions about whether and where such an office exists.

Of those that did have a national office, journalists found more than 40 paid rent to their national political parties, which raised suspicions of unallowed national party financing. Eight MEPs national offices were located in buildings that they themselves own. One of those is chairman of the EPP group, Manfred Weber.

A few MEPs admitted to paying rent to themselves. Some explained they donated money to their party and different foundations. One MEP said he was saving the money for a pension. None of this is in line with rules governing the general allowance spending.

Parliament spokesperson Marjory van den Broeke explained at the time that an MEPs national office can be used “solely for the exercise of the European mandate. As such, the office should be separate from other offices and clearly marked as one for European Parliament work. It can also not be used by other people or for other purposes. Those are all the conditions that have to be respected.”

Rules have to be respected, Van Den Broeke said. Yet on Monday it became clear that nobody — including Tajani and the rest of the Parliaments governing body — actually intends to enforce them. Its so much easier, it turns out, to assign rules to others than it is to curb your own spending of EU taxpayers money.

The message that the Parliament sent out is that the General Expenditure Allowance is a private matter for MEPs and MEPs alone.

If so, it should be treated as such — taxed accordingly and called what it is: a second pay check for MEPs.

Anuška Delić, an investigative journalist based in Slovenia, is the founder of the MEPs Project and of Oštro, a new center for investigative journalism focusing on the Adriatic region.

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Original Article

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