European Parliament taken to court by EU journalists
By Peter Teffer
A group of 29 European journalists have filed complaints with the EU's Court of Justice, demanding access to documents that will show how members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been spending their allowances.
The reporters filed freedom of information (FOI) requests with the European Parliament, asking for copies of documents that show details for the MEPs' travel expenses, accommodation expenses, office expenses, and assistants expenses for the past four years.
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“We are not demanding access to records about how MEPs spend their salaries, which are intended for their personal and private use,” the group said in a statement.
“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 added.
In September, the parliament denied access to these documents, either because they contain personal data or, they argue, because no such records are held.
A week ago, the reporters filed complaints with the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union, with assistance from Natasa Pirc Musar, Slovenia's former Information Commissioner. They publicly announced their legal struggle on Friday (20 November).
EP press spokesperson Marjory van den Broeke said the parliament has not yet received a formal notification from the court.
"So formally, officially we cannot react to this, as we haven't received it,” she told this website at a press conference Friday (20 November).
However, she pointed out that when the EP does receive a FOI request, a balance must be struck between the EU's rules on access to documents and its rules on personal data protection.
“Both these different aspects are taken into account when there is a proper investigation into the need to transfer personal data [to the FOI applicant],” said Van den Broeke, adding as an example of personal data that “some of these data could reveal political activities, which are the prerogative of an MEP to have, and which are their personal political convictions”. No clarification on the difference between personal political activities and public political activities was offered.
According to the EP, around 27 percent of its almost €1.8 billion budget in 2014 was spent on MEP salaries and expenses, which include travel, office costs and assistants' salaries.
Rent and phone bills are paid out of a lump sum
The journalists already know that there will be little information they can expect on the office costs, which are covered by the so-called general expenditure allowance (GEA), because little is recorded.
While MEPs are required to hand in receipts for their travel, accommodation and assistants expenses, they receive the GEA, which covers costs such as rent, phone bills, software, and furniture, as a monthly lump sum of €4,299 per MEP office.
“The European Parliament spends 3.2 million euros each month solely on MEPs' general expenditure allowance (almost 40 million euros per year). No one is monitoring this spending,” the journalists' group noted.
Previous attempts to make the GEA more transparent failed because not enough MEPs backed the attempts.
When this reporter asked spokespersons for all political groups present at Friday's press conference, several provided statements that do not quite accurately reflect voting behaviour
“Our group, as you know, is in favour of transparency. I think we've shown this in many cases”, said spokesperson Ulla Tuttlies of the centre-left socialist group, in a remark that was echoed in some form or other by her colleagues.
Yet about two-thirds of the socialists voted last month against an amendment by a Green MEP, which would have attached a call for greater scrutiny to next year's budget report.
The text would have added that the parliament “considers that [greater transparency] might include, as a first step, an obligation to make spending records public, and that limited, rotating inspections could be introduced in a second stage”.
It was defeated with 274 in favour, 403 against, and 19 abstentions.
In addition to the large batch of socialists, most of the opposition to the amendment came from members of the centre-right EPP, the centre-right ECR, and the Liberal group.
Left-wing and eurosceptic alliance
Support for the motion came mostly from the left, and, in an apparent change of heart, from the eurosceptic parties.
Last April, the UK Independence party and French Front National, did nothing to prevent the scrapping of a request for an obligatory annual report on the GEA.
But October's text was supported by virtually all members of the UK-dominated EFDD group. Four members of the Dutch Freedom Party were the only MEPs of Marine Le Pen's ENF to vote against it.
However, without support from one of the two largest centre parties, no changes will be made.
“The rules are the rules. … You shouldn't be surprised that the current MEPs follow the rules approved by the plenary”, said EPP spokesperson Pedro Lopez de Pablo.
“Whether you consider these rules transparent or not is another debate. Those who don't consider these rules transparent enough need to present a proposal to the plenary. The groups will then discuss it and the plenary will vote on it”, he noted.
When Green spokesperson Richard More O'Ferrall wanted to raise the point of his group members' amendment, Lopez de Pablo objected.
“No, you presented an amendment to the budget, but not a proposal”, said the EPP spokesperson.
One argument for keeping the GEA as a lump sum, expressed by an EP source who did not wish to be named, was that this forces some discipline on how the money is being spent. If all costs are recovered on the basis of receipts, there is no incentive to find the cheapest product or service, the contact noted.
For her part, Anuska Delic, the Slovenian journalist who was a driving force behind the journalists' initiative, told this website she expects it could take at least “a year, a year-and-a-half” before the court comes to a decision.