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16th Nov 2019

EU court delivers transparency blow on MEP expenses

  • The public is left in the dark (Photo: European Parliament)

A group journalists seeking access to MEP travel expenses, daily subsistence allowances and staff arrangement expenses will appeal a top European court ruling handed down on Tuesday (25 September).

The General Court of the European Union in Luxembourg in a press release on Tuesday dismissed the case brought by the reporters against the European Parliament in 2015.

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But after some three years of deliberations, the court sided with the parliament, echoing similar arguments prioritising the protection of personal data over the wider public interest.

"By today's judgment, the general court dismisses the actions and confirms the parliaments' decisions refusing access to the documents requested," the statement said.

The court said that parliament was entitled to claim that the documents concerned contain personal data.

A class of their own

"I did not expect the court to literally follow suit completely with the European parliament. I am shocked really," Anuska Delic, the Slovenian investigator journalist who helped launch the expense probe, told EUobserver following Tuesday's ruling.

"We will appeal, it is not over," she said, adding that the court's decision suggests MEPs are in "a class of their own, a class of public officials that are not open to public scrutiny."

Delic said the documents they had requested are not the personal data of the MEPs - an issue that "was completely overlooked by the court".

"The EU Court of Justice's decision is embarrassing and – combined with the clearly demonstrated unwillingness of MEPs to have their expenses audited – plays directly into the hands of EU sceptics ," she said.

The EU's data protection chief Giovanni Buttarelli, told this website last year that politicians have to accept strong limitations in the name of transparency.

While Buttarelli could not comment directly on the case itself, he noted that such information can only be limited in exceptional circumstances and must be defined in narrow terms.

But the court also argued - again echoing the same claim by the European parliament - that redacting personal data would pose too great an administrative burden.

It also noted that such redacted documents would render the documents useless for the journalists since they would be unable to link the MEP to the expense.

A group of 29 journalists, under the so-called MEPs Project, had attempted to uncover the expenses by first filing freedom of information requests, which the European parliament refused.

They then took the EU institution to the court in Luxembourg, noting that they were not demanding access to records about how MEPs spend their salaries, just the expenses.

"We are demanding access to records that show details of how they spend all the extra payments they receive on top of their salaries, and only those extras which are paid to them solely for the exercise of their professional public mandates as elected representatives of European citizens," they said at the time.

Stalled reforms

One of the expense types, a monthly €4,400 lump sum for office expenses, is controversial because it is paid automatically into MEPs' accounts on top of their salaries, and requires no receipts or proof of what it is spent on.

An MEP's expenses can be used for any number of purchases when it comes to travel and office expenses, with few restrictions.

It is nearly impossible to make sure EU taxpayer money is used properly. MEPs are not required to file or keep receipts and the money is transferred directly into their personal bank accounts as a lump sum on top of their monthly wages.

The ruling comes at a time when the parliament's 'Bureau' (which consists of the president and vice-presidents) has refused to make the monthly office allowance more transparent or accountable to the public.

"The majority of MEPs agree on the need for more transparency around their own expenses, but the Bureau of the parliament and president [Antonio] Tajani refuse to act," said Heidi Hautala, a Finnish MEP from the Greens group.

The Bureau has already - among other things - rejected a requirement for MEPs to at least keep receipts.

EUobserver has been pressing the Bureau for more information, filing its own freedom of information requests, in an effort to get a glimpse into their decision-making on the matter.

But those efforts have been rebuffed by Hungarian MEP Livia Jaroka, the parliament's vice-president responsible for matters relating to access to documents. Jaroka, who is also a Bureau member, denied EUobserver's requests.

Jaroka said the public interest in knowing how the Bureau decided on the future system of the expenses "does not outweigh the interest in the protection of parliament's internal decision-making process".

This latest General Court ruling is likely to embolden the Bureau further, rending efforts to reform the monthly allowance more difficult.

This article was updated at 18:10 on 25 September to specify the reporters were demanding access to travel expenses, daily subsistence allowance and staff arrangement expenses.

EU data chief: MEPs must accept transparency

Europe's top data protection chief says politicians have to accept transparency. His comments follows a case pitting journalists against the European Parliament, which refuses to disclose MEPs' expenses.

EU parliament to keep public in dark on MEP expenses

Every year, MEPs spend some €40m of taxpayer money on things like restaurants and hotels amid public pressure for accountability, given numerous scandals. On Monday, EU parliament leaders decided to keep the public in the dark.

EU parliament will not budge on office expenses

Hungarian centre-right MEP Livia Jaroka sticks to earlier decision: documents related to the minor reform of the expenses system, requested by EUobserver, should remain secret.

Opinion

Decline of institutions' moral standards threatens EU

From MEPs expenses, to denial of Freedom of Information requests, to the backroom deal to appoint Martin Selmayr - the EU's institutions are failing to live up to their own standards.

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