Wednesday

19th Sep 2018

Le Pen's EU group in fresh spending scandal

  • An internal audit, seen by EUobserver, shows a half million euro hole in the Europe of Nations and Freedom group's accounting records. (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Marine Le Pen's political group in the European Parliament, the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), may have misspent almost half a million euros of public taxpayers' money.

A report by auditors at EY (formerly Ernst & Young), dated 19 May 2017 and seen by EUobserver, says the group did not meet budget obligations for "10 service providers with a total value of €492,506.88". Another €53,876.31 worth of income was also unaccounted for.

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EY was commissioned as an external auditor for the ENF group. The auditing firm's task was part of a standard procedure to audit EU money granted to and used by the ENF.

The ENF group was formed in mid-2015 and includes far-right and virulent anti-EU members, such as Le Pen's National Front party, Italy's Northern League, and Austria's Freedom Party.

The EU has funded pan-European political parties since 2004 with the aim of increasing interest in European elections, but EU parliament rules prohibit MEPs and their political groups from spending that money on national elections or referendums.

The "instances of non-compliance" with the rules, cited in the EY audit, follow a separate investigation into the former French presidential candidate.

The earlier investigation already accused her of abusing EU parliament funds for her national political ambitions by paying assistants for tasks unrelated to the EU.

Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes, who sits on the parliament's budgetary oversight committee, told EUobserver the EY numbers were worrying. "If true, then this is a major issue," he said. He added that the EU parliament's secretary general, Klaus Welle, may have to ask for the money to be reimbursed.

ENF treasurer Gerolf Annemans denied any wrongdoing in a statement, noting that they fully endorsed the EY report. "There is no question of fraud or cheating as expressly mentioned in this report," he said.

Big expenses in staffing and advertising

The 13-page audit was issued following new information, received by EY in May, detailing the group's funding over the course of 2016.

The half-a-million euro discrepancy disclosed by EY clashes with the EU parliament's procurement rules under a so-called 400 budget line, which deals with how money is divided up and used by political groups.

It is not immediately clear how or where the money was spent, but figures provided in the audit showed a massive increase in costs when compared to the previous reporting period - in staffing, advertising, and "political and information activities of national delegations."

However, since ENF was founded in mid-2015, it did not receive a full budget for that year. It was first awarded a €1.5 million grant in 2015. The year after, it received €3.2 million.

The EY audit comes at a tricky time for Le Pen.

A previous investigation into her National Front party has accused her of defrauding the EU parliament out of almost €5 million to pay staff for party work in France between 2012 until the lead-up to the May 2017 presidential election.

An annex in the latest report, for instance, noted the MEPs had spent over half of the group's total budget provided to them by the EU parliament for 2016.

Almost a quarter of that went on "posters, leaflets, and booklets", followed by big spending on online adverts and staffing.

A similar amount of some €500,000 was also misspent by the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe, a political group dominated by MEPs from Nigel Farage's anti-EU UK Independence Party (Ukip), according to another auditing report first seen by the Guardian newspaper last November.

Nicholas Aiossa, from the NGO Transparency International, said full clarity was needed on how all MEPs and political groups were spending public money.

“This current revelation involves a political group whose members are already embroiled in a systematic investigation into misuse of EU funds involving National Front MEPs and assistants," Aiossa, from the NGO’s Brussels office, said.

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