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20th May 2018

Interview

Failure to reform MEP expenses would hit 2019 elections 'badly'

  • MEPs receive a monthly lump sum of €4,416 to cover office-related expenses (Photo: European Parliament)

MEPs are well aware that they need to reform their controversial monthly office expenses system if they are not to face voter anger at next year's elections, according to one of the members of the relevant internal decision-making body.

Every month, MEPs receive a lump sum of €4,416 to cover operational expenses like phone bills, office management, and computer equipment. The office expense fund is called the general expenditure allowance (GEA).

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  • MEP Heidi Hautala keeps a record of how she spends the office allowance. 'It’s not really a big thing to do, if one wants to. It’s good housekeeping,' she said. (Photo: European Parliament)

It has been criticised for years because MEPs are not required to hand in receipts or justify how they spend it. An investigation published by this website last year showed that the money was sometimes misused.

"The European Parliament has to be bound by the highest standards of good governance and transparency," Finnish Green MEP Heidi Hautala told EUobserver on Thursday (1 March).

She said that she hoped a decision would be taken in April at the latest.

A failure to reform would affect the 2019 election campaign "very badly", Hautala said.

"I think people [in the parliament] sense it. … We can now prove that we can put in place a credible system," she added.

An internal working group has been set up to reform the fund, but it will be the parliament's procedural body – simply called the Bureau – which will take the decision.

MEP Hautala, a member of the parliament's bureau, said that three principles adopted in plenary should be leading.

Last October, MEPs adopted a resolution in plenary on the EU budget, with 414 votes in favour, 163 against, and 90 abstentions.

The resolution said that the GEA money should be deposited in a separate bank account – as opposed to an MEP's private account; that member should keep their receipts; and that any amounts not spent when an MEP's mandate is over, should be returned to the parliament.

"I cannot see how we can go around these three principles, because it is the highest political body of the parliament has adopted them," Hautala said.

"But now of course these three principles don't mean much if we don't have an accountability or transparency mechanism to make it real. This is the big question now," said Hautala.

"The bureau should be able to agree on something which gives a sufficient trust to the public, that the parliamentarians are acting according to the rules."

"There are different elements and models and combinations. Now we have to choose," she said.

The Finnish MEP, a former minister for international development, noted that it was important that there were some kind of checks in place.

"I would like to see that we could discuss for instance that at least five percent of the members every year would be subject to scrutiny by the administration," she said, adding that it could also be a higher percentage.

She noted that this system would also still give MEPs some leeway in how they spend their money.

"I don't think anybody wants a system where we are reporting explanations on each purchase of a book or working dinner," Hautala noted.

The Green MEP said she also would like to see MEPs publish a breakdown of their annual expenses online.

Unique parliament, unique system

Hautala referred to an article published by EUobserver earlier this week, in which parliament secretary general Klause Welle noted that the issue is linked to the fact that each EU country has its own system for national MPs.

"The Germans want a German system, the Italians want an Italian system, the French want a French system and the Brits want a British system but they can't have it all because the systems are different," Welle had said.

"This is a unique parliament," said Haatula in response to Welle.

"It has always had to create its own rules based on the fact that we come from very different backgrounds and very different cultures."

Housekeeping

She said she had been trying to spread the word to fellow MEPs.

"I never had a problem of keeping these records. I'm telling colleagues that it's very easy," she said.

"It's not really a big thing to do, if one wants to. It's good housekeeping."

Hautala noted that the monthly allowance was public money and therefore needed to be accounted for. But she also stressed that it is not out of the ordinary for the entire sum to be spent by MEPs who are abiding by the rules.

"It is a big sum of money. An active member can spend that money properly for work," she said.

The reform, if adopted, will probably be implemented for MEPs installed after the May 2019 elections.

"The decisions have to be taken now, otherwise it is too late. … I hope there will be enough awareness that we are really watched. And it's good, because we are a publicly elected body."

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.

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.

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