22nd Mar 2018

MEP switches vote on 'private expenses' transparency

  • MEPs are not held accountable for some €40 million they spend on 'expenses' every year (Photo: European Parliament)

MEPs leading a probe into the transparency of so-called 'private expenses' appear increasingly under pressure to back rules on accountability of the Parliament's expenses scheme.

Following revelations last week of voting patterns by this website and Transparency International's Brussels office, one of the MEPs has since demanded her vote be changed.

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French centre-right EPP Elisabeth Morin-Chartier said she made an error in her votes for a number of amendments in a budget resolution that demanded public accountability of the €4,300 deposited into the personal bank accounts of MEPs each month.

"I unfortunately noticed only after the votes in plenary that I had voted against these three amendments for which I wanted to vote in favour," she told this website in an email on Wednesday (15 November).

Unlike most MEPs, Morin-Chartier maintains a separate account and keeps receipts for the allowance, which helps the public track how she spends the sum. She has also, along with a seven other MEPs, been tasked to look into how to make these private expenses more transparent.

The lump sum is for office expenses but there is no paper trail on how it is spent. The money, also known as the general expenditure allowance, comes on top of salaries and adds up to over €40 million per year.

Transparency International has described the allowance as the "wild west spending of public money".

When journalists ask for details, the EU parliament refuses because of data protection rules.

In October, four of the MEPs in the group voted against over a half dozen amendments in a budget resolution aimed at prying open the secrecy behind the expenses.

The eight amendments demanded, among other things, that MEPs open separate bank accounts for the allowance, keep receipts, and make "concrete changes" on the allowance itself.

Morin-Chartier, who sits on the ad-hoc group, is also a 'questor' - someone tasked with overlooking the financial and administrative interests of MEPs.

Asked why she would oppose the opening of a separate bank account, keeping of receipts and changes to the allowance, Morin-Chartier said it was human error.

"I requested a correction of my vote, which will normally appear in the European Parliament official website soon," she said.

Better a 'no' vote than abstain

But she maintains her 'no' vote on the remaining amendments.

Those amendments demanded that MEPs submit end-of -year public reports on the allowances, be subject to surprise internal audits, and return unspent money to the public coffer.

Her argument against follows the same logic as other 'no'-voters on the same ad-hoc group.

Her fellow questor Slovak centre-left MEP Vladimir Manka and the group's co-chairs; German centre-right Rainer Wieland and Italian socialist David-Maria Sassoli, all voted against.

None wanted to abstain so as not to prejudge the outcome of the group's report on allowances due at the end of the year.

Manka made similar arguments.

"If everybody abstained, any populist or unfeasible proposals could have been approved solely by those who presented them without knowing the actual facts and options," he said in an email.

Manka said the group is still looking into all the options and is evaluating other systems in parliaments in Europe and the United States.

Like Morin-Chartier, Manka also has a separate bank account for allowances. He too keeps receipts and invoices.

He says forcing all MEPs to do the same would only make sense at the beginning of the next legislature.

But not everyone agrees. The four other members of the same group voted in favour and the fifth, Morin-Chartier, has since changed her vote.

EPP and S&D vote 'no' as well

A closer look at how all 751 MEPs voted on the same amendments reveals political party allegiances.

Liberals MEPs, as well as left-leaning Greens and GUE voted in favour, while the centre-right and socialists broadly opposed.

Despite the party allegiances, three amendments on returning unspent funds, setting up a separate bank account, and keeping receipts were adopted by close margins.

Both the centre-right EPP and centre-left S&D dominated the 'no' votes.

Including some abstentions, the amendments on separate bank accounts passed with 350 in favour, 274 against, keeping receipts won 318 in favour, 316 against, and returning unspent funds received 352 in favour and 292 against.

However, this does not mean the European Parliament will now impose any of what was adopted.

The final say will be made by the bureau of the European Parliament, composed of the president and vice-presidents.

It is the bureau which created the ad-hoc working group. And it is the ad-hoc working group, which will inform them of what to do.

Court battles intensifies on MEPs' 'private' expenses

The EU parliament said the public does not have a right to monitor the public role of MEPs, says Natasa Pirc Musar, a lawyer representing journalists, in a transparency battle against the assembly.

MEPs award themselves €1,500 more in staff expenses

As European citizens come to terms with the array of austerity measures being doled out across the union at the insistence of EU and international lenders, MEPs have voted to increase the money they use for expenses.

Commission rejects ombudsman criticism over Barroso case

The European Commission repeated that it followed the rules when its former head joined Goldman Sachs - and suggested it will not follow the EU Ombudsman's demand to refer the case back to the ethics committee.

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