Friday

13th Dec 2019

MEPs may be forced to return 'unused' office expenses

  • Visitors to the European Parliament. MEPs can invite guests and pay for their hotels through the 'general expenditure allowance' (Photo: European Parliament)

The president of the European Parliament and the fourteen vice-presidents will decide on Monday (2 July) whether to make the system of reimbursing MEPs' office expenses more transparent.

MEPs receive the "general expenditure allowance" (GEA) – a lump sum of €4,416 – every month to cover office expenses like phone bills and computer equipment.

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However, there are no controls over how they are spent – and many MEPs are reluctant to tell journalists where the money ends up.

Acutely aware that the issue can negatively hover over the upcoming campaign for the 2019 elections, MEPs have set out to find a reform of the system.

An ad-hoc working group on the GEA adopted a compromise decision on 19 June, which contained some changes to the system. The decision is not yet public, but was leaked to this website.

It will be put to the Bureau, the parliament's body for internal procedures, which has president Antonio Tajani and 19 MEPs as its members – although only the president and 14 vice-presidents will be allowed to vote.

What is proposed?

The group suggested that the GEA funds should be deposited in a separate bank account – instead of an MEP's personal account – and that this bank account is used only for the GEA.

They said that any unused amounts should be returned at the end of the MEP's five-year mandate, and that MEPs should hire "a natural or legal person" to document how the funds are used.

"The natural or legal person chosen conducts the check in accordance with the professional standards laid down under the applicable national law," the decision said.

Annually, that agent should confirm that the money has been used properly. The stamp of approval would then be published on the MEP's page on the parliament's website.

If the use of the funds is not approved by the end of May that year, the MEP will be named and shamed and possibly investigated.

"Failing to communicate will result in publishing the information about a missing confirmation and could result in an administrative check," the working group said.

The reform would also include a list of expenses that are eligible for funding through the GEA - although the list is not to be exhaustive.

Costs eligible would include rent, heating, media subscriptions, stationery, business cards, software, but also "travel, hotel and restaurant charges" incurred by guests invited by the MEP.

The costs of maintaining a separate bank account for the GEA would also be eligible to be paid for by the GEA.

The working group decided between two different versions of the reform – the one that lost was less far-reaching, for example without the requirement to pay back unused funds at the end of an MEP's mandate.

An adviser to centre-right German MEP Rainer Wieland denied a rumour that an alternative proposal by Wieland would be put in front of the Bureau on Monday.

"The working group as a whole agreed on a document which it forwarded to the bureau," Wieland's adviser told this website in an email.

'No watering down'

Green Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala was part of the working group and in favour of the farther-reaching version of the reform.

"The European voters and taxpayers are justified in their expectation that the European Parliament would finally commit to clear principles on ways of spending this allowance of public money," she told EUobserver in a written comment.

"The outcome, as a compromise, follows the principles set by the MEPs at the plenary; there should be no arguments to water it down," she noted.

"It seems like some members of the Bureau are willing to keep the status quo and not to commit to transparency and accountability," Hautala added.

Her Green colleague from Germany, Sven Giegold, on Thursday issued a press statement about the working group's outcome.

"To be a credible driver for change, the European parliament has to bring its own house in order first by applying obligatory requirements of transparency and accountability of the use of the general expenditure allowance on all members of the European parliament," said Giegold.

"Sound financial management is key to fight corruption and should apply in exemplary way to ourselves as MEPs," he added.

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 parliament to keep public in dark on MEP expenses

Every year, MEPs spend some €40m of taxpayer money on things like restaurants and hotels amid public pressure for accountability, given numerous scandals. On Monday, EU parliament leaders decided to keep the public in the dark.

Exclusive

How eight MEPs overruled 540 colleagues on office expenses

The EU parliament spends €40m a year on a lump sum for MEPs' expenses with barely any scrutiny. A majority of parliamentarians called for more transparency - but a handful of powerful MEPs mostly dismissed that request.

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