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Ombudsman backs EUobserver on MEP expenses

  • 'The Bureau' consists of 14 parliament vice-presidents and president Antonio Tajani (centre). Rainer Wieland (right) wrote a document relating to how the MEP office expenses system should be reformed. (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament should have granted access to documents on a decision about how transparent MEPs should be in future with their office expenses.

Its failure to do so last year, when EUobserver asked for the papers to be published, constituted "maladministration", the European Ombudsman said in a statement on Thursday (2 May).

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  • Emma O'Reilly: 'Given this situation, in which MEPs act as decision-makers whilst also being the receivers of the expenses, the ombudsman finds that there is an overriding public interest in scrutiny of the Bureau's decision-making process.' (Photo: European Parliament)

The case was about the controversial "general expenditure allowance" (GEA), a €4,513 lump sum which all MEPs receive every month - officially, to cover costs of running their office, like rent and supplies.

The lump sum system, which totals some €40m in taxpayer money annually, is highly-contentious, because - unlike most office expense systems - there is no requirement to keep receipts for items purchased, or to return unspent funds at the end of an MEP's term of office.

In an attempt to take some of the controversy out of the GEA ahead of this month's European Parliament elections, a working group consisting of MEPs set out options to reform the system.

That working group was set up in June 2017. Its options for reform were presented to the parliament's internal decision-making body, the Bureau, on 2 July 2018.

According to multiple sources, an 8-6 majority in the Bureau decided to go for only a minimal reform of the system, ignoring two key demands from a majority of MEPs, including a requirement for MEPs to keep receipts.

Two days later, EUobserver filed an access to documents request to the European Parliament - asking for the papers that were tabled for the 2 July 2018 meeting.

These included a letter from the working group chair Rainer Wieland, a German MEP from the European People's Party (EPP) who is also a Bureau member.

The parliament twice denied EUobserver access.

In first instance the case was handled by secretary-general Klaus Welle, who rejected publication.

This website then appealed, which was also rejected - this time by Hungarian MEP Livia Jaroka (also EPP).

Jaroka, one of the EU parliament's vice-presidents, is in charge of dealing with appeals - despite a clear conflict of interest, given that she, with Wieland, was among the Bureau MEPs that reportedly voted to reject any more far-reaching reform.

Both Welle and Jaroka had argued that the papers should be kept confidential, because if they would be released it would endanger the ability of future working groups to discuss sensitive issue freely.

"Working group members and the services involved in the drafting of the decision proposal would practise self-censorship in the future. They would be pressured into avoiding to express some contrasted views or novel proposals for fear that those views or proposals could become publicly available," Welle wrote.

Following this second rejection, EUobserver filed a complaint to the European Ombudsman, an independent watchdog.

Take but not give

On Thursday, EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly dismissed the parliament's reasons for keeping the documents secret.

"The ombudsman underlines the importance of the context of this case: this is a situation in which MEPs, as members of the Bureau, decide on the coverage of expenses from the GEA," the ombudsman's formal recommendation said.

"At the same time, those MEPs receive repayment of those expenses under the GEA," she added.

"Given this situation, in which MEPs act as decision-makers whilst also being the receivers of the expenses, the ombudsman finds that there is an overriding public interest in scrutiny of the Bureau's decision-making process."

"Such a public interest also exists in ensuring that the rules governing the use of the GEA are assessed objectively and set sensibly," she added.

The ombudsman said "the public should have an insight into how the administrative decision was made in this case and which options were proposed and discussed".

Public scrutiny of how the EU parliament reached its decision "is of importance for public trust in the responsible use of public funds by their elected representatives".

In a final rebuttal, she also said that it was "unlikely" that releasing these papers would discourage future working groups from discussing the issue freely and openly.

While the ombudsman accepted the issue was sensitive, she stressed that there was "an overriding public interest in disclosure of those documents".

However, her recommendation is not legally binding.

Silence until after elections?

A spokeswoman for the EU parliament told EUobserver it had "taken note of the recommendation by the European Ombudsman".

"It now has three months to give a reasoned reply to the ombudsman," she added.

This suggests that the parliament make no decision until after the 23-26 May European parliament elections.

The spokeswoman also repeated the reasons for refusing public access to the preparatory papers, mainly that "disclosure of reflections on possible options would seriously undermine the willingness and possibility to have such frank and open exchanges in future".

She also noted that the actual new rules are "of course" public. (See page 60-63 of the minutes of the Bureau meeting of 2 July 2018.)

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