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21st Jun 2021

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MEP office expenses kept secret on dubious evidence

  • MEPs each receive a lump sum of over €4,500-a-month for office supplies. There is no oversight on how it gets spent (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament is using seven-year old data, based on guesswork, as an excuse not to audit how MEPs spend their €4,500 monthly office allowances.

Each MEP gets that lump sum every month to cover office expenses - totalling some €40m a year in public money.

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But transparency-driven efforts to make sure the money is properly spent has been blocked for years by the European Parliament's administration and some of the MEPs' themselves leadership.

They claim anywhere between 40 to 75 new staff would have to be hired to oversee how this so-called general allowance expenditure (GAE) would be spent.

They say the extra hires could cost nearly €7m a year, running foul of sound financial rules.

But documents released to EUobserver indicate their estimated cost is 10 times higher than real-world amounts.

EUobserver filed a Freedom of Information request, demanding how, and on what basis, they arrived at the need for so many additional staff.

The response is telling of an administrative organisation led by secretary-general Klaus Welle, as well as some senior MEPs, including German centre-right vice-president Rainer Wieland.

In its answer, the European Parliament said the calculation of 40 to 75 additional staff "was chiefly made during informal exchanges".

Those exchanges were made in relation to talks about the parliament's 2013 budget.

Most MEPs have since pressed for greater transparency on office expenses.

But they have also been consistently ruled over by a handful of powerful people in the so-called Bureau, which is composed of the European Parliament's president and 14 vice-presidents.

One of the primary arguments against transparency is an MEP's "freedom of mandate", a concept held sacred by Wieland.

Bogus figures, repeated as fact

The new staffing number has since become a go-to number, and repeated without question by MEPs opposing greater transparency on public finances.

The most recent example was by Finnish centre-right MEP Petri Sarvamaa, who cited them earlier this year in the European Parliament's discharge budget report.

His proposed resolution said "the comprehensive system of control" on GAE would "necessitate 40 to 75 new administrative posts".

Sarvamaa then claimed this would go "against sound financial management and proportionality."

The European Parliament had 751 MEPs from 2014 to 2019. Post-Brexit, it is down to 705, which presumably would require Sarvamaa to also revise his own figures.

In reality, the extra staffing was concocted on guesswork years ago after comparing two very different budgets.

"It is impossible to compare the budget lines because the parliament has zero input into how the general expenditure allowance is actually spent," said Nick Aiossa, a senior policy officer at Transparency International EU.

The first is the associated costs of hiring new staff, based on a half page document with two scenarios.

One says 40 new staff at €3.6m per year would "provide reasonable degree of assurance" on GAE oversight.

The second says 75 new staff at €6.7m per year represents "gaining total control of all expenses."

This comes out at just under €9,000 per MEP - whereas an independent auditor would be around 10 times less expensive.

A handful of MEPs have taken it on themselves to hire independent auditors to cover their allowances.

Among them is German Green MEP Daniel Freund. He paid an auditor €800 to verify his accounts.

"It was the first one, a bit more expensive. Future ones will be cheaper," said his office.

Yet the parliament says it extrapolated the figures based on its own workload related to the finances of non-attached MEPs under a so-called '400 budget line'.

The 400 budget line pays the administrative and operational expense of political groups and non-attached members.

It is unclear if any of this is really followed because the European Parliament refuses to disclose documents dealing with the 400 budget lines.

Nevertheless, the parliament argues that its workload for the non-attached MEPs "represented the closest type of calculation that could be found at the time."

But because it did not offer any detailed accounts of said workload, the public has to take the parliament's word as fact.

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