Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Court battles intensifies on MEPs' 'private' expenses

Every month, each MEP at the European parliament receives large amounts of public money to spend on allowances, travel costs, and staff.

On Thursday (19 October), the top EU court will hold a hearing on whether the public has the right to know exactly how such tax-payer money is spent. A verdict is not expected this year.

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But when a group of journalists from around Europe in 2015 asked to scrutinise MEPs' monthly invoices, the parliament refused, citing data protection rules, "excessive workload" and because not all such records are held.

The journalists, represented by Natasa Pirc Musar, then took the parliament to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

In an interview last week with EUobserver, the lawyer said the parliament claims only the EU's anti-fraud office Olaf and national police can investigate and ascertain MEP expenses.

"If this prevails, this is the end of investigative journalism in Europe," she said.

She said the judges in Luxembourg will have to decide how much privacy an MEP can have for performing the task of an MEP, or if data protection (as defined under regulation 45/2001) gives them the leeway that keeps some activities secret.

Such data protection laws also cover service providers, or companies hired by the MEPs to carry out certain tasks, like an analysis or a report.

"How far can you go? I mean basically everything at the end is personal data," she said.

But if the court decides in the favour of the journalists, then the parliament will have to hand over all the requested documents.

She says a better long term solution is to have MEPs proactively publish the documents online and have personal information like bank account details and home addresses blocked out.

Some already do. The UK's Green MEP Jean Lambert publishes both her general expenditures and her receipts on her website.

But Musar also pointed out that extra journalistic scrutiny is needed in cases where, for example, MEPs do not spend any money. No money spent may mean that the MEP is not doing his or her job.

"I want to see them work, and if they work at all," she said.

No paper trail for a lot of euros

The EU parliament spends millions every year of public money on MEP allowances.

Per month they receive a lump sum of over €4,300 in general expenditure for things like office rent and phone bills. This comes to around €40 million annually for all 751 members.

Another maximum of some €24,000 is given per month to pay for staff. They receive a flat-rate subsistence allowance of €306 per day on hotels and meals.

They can claim over €4,200 per year in travel expenses between Brussels and Strasbourg, where they meet for plenary sessions. All this comes on top of a monthly pre-tax salary of €8,484.

One of the biggest obstacles is that the EU parliament does not keep records of how an MEP spends his or her monthly general allowance of €4,300.

The EU Parliament does not audit office expenses because the money is given as a lump sum. No audit means little to no oversight.

Pressed by reporters, only 53 MEPs as of May agreed to disclose such information. Some have an office outside of the EU parliament but will not reveal its address.

Others refused or remained silent to their inquiries. Among them is Manfred Weber, who chairs the centre-right EPP political group.

Weber has a local office annexed to his private home in the Bavarian countryside, about a one hour drive from Munich.

He did not respond to the consortium inquiries on how he uses his general expenditures. He did not respond to this website, either.

In April, the European Parliament voted on transparency amendments that would require MEPs to create a separate account to track general monthly allowances.

But Weber, like most MEPs except some from the far-left GUE group, voted it down. The amendments never passed.

EU commission more transparent

Travel expenses is another touchy issue for MEPs, although not any longer for the European Commission.

After a long legal battle with the Spanish NGO Access Info, the European Commission decided to disclose the travel expenses of all its 28 commissioners.

Last month, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker announced travel expenses of each commissioner would be published every two months.

The European Parliament continues to refuse.

"The European commissioners gave it up, MEPs are not giving it up," said Musar.

Investigation

Citizens pay for MEPs' ghost offices

Each member of the European Parliament gets €4,342 every month, mainly to fund an office in their own country. But many of these offices seem nowhere to be found.

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.

MEP switches vote on 'private expenses' transparency

A small group of MEPs are looking into how members of the European Parliament spend the monthly €4,300 'private expenses' funded by taxpayer money. Last month, MEPs voted on transparency amendments on the funds.

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