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20th Nov 2019

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How eight MEPs overruled 540 colleagues on office expenses

  • Centre-right German MEP Rainer Wieland (r) at an event in 2012 on transparency. Wieland voted to support only a minimal reform of the MEPs' monthly office expense system (Photo: Transparency International EU Office)

The European Parliament has 751 members, each of whom receive a monthly allowance of €4,416 to cover office expenses.

For 2018, the total bill for this lump sum, known as the general expenditure allowance (GEA), comes to €40m. No receipts are kept and scrutiny is minimal.

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  • Centre-right Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness was also among the Bureau members that blocked a more far-reaching reform (Photo: European Parliament)

On 25 October 2017, the parliament adopted a resolution (with a majority of 414 MEPs) saying there should be more transparency regarding how the money is spent.

The plenary asked for three things: that the GEA should be deposited in a separate bank account; that MEPs should keep receipts; and that the unspent share of the GEA should be returned to the parliament's coffers at the end of an MEP's mandate.

On 18 April, an even larger majority of 540 MEPs voted in favour of a text which recalled the same request for more transparency and repeated these three demands.

But on Monday (2 July), eight MEPs holding the title vice-president scrapped two out of three items of the plenary's wish list, and opted for only a minimal reform .

Who are these eight MEPs, and how do they explain their decision to voters?

The Bureau

The parliament body that made the decision – the so-called Bureau – consists of president Antonio Tajani, the 14 vice-presidents of the parliament, and five MEPs with the title 'quaestor'.

Quaestors are tasked with looking after the financial and administrative interests of the parliament, but they were not allowed to vote on the GEA.

Bureau meetings are held behind closed doors. Minutes are made public, but after some delay – those for the previous meeting held on 11 June are not available yet, for example.

On Tuesday, German Green MEP Sven Giegold published on his website what he said was a list of how Bureau members voted on Monday.

Eight MEPs voted for a minor reform, while six MEPs wanted a more far-reaching change, he said.

There is no non-partisan public record of how the Bureau voted, but three parliament sources confirmed the 6-8 voting ratio independently.

EUobserver was also able to independently confirm the voting behaviour of nine of the 14 vice-presidents – either from the MEP in question directly or from an MEP from the same group.

This makes it very likely that Giegold's list is accurate.

Team 8

The eight in the 'minor reform' camp were four MEPs from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), three MEPs from the centre-left socialists & democrats group (S&D) and the Bureau's only member from the European Conservatives and Reformists, Poland's Zdzislaw Krasnodebski.

The EPP members were Mairead McGuinness (Ireland), Rainer Wieland (Germany), Ramon Luis Valcarcel Siso (Spain), and Livia Jaroka (Hungary).

The S&D members were Boguslaw Liberadzki (Poland), Evelyne Gebhardt (Germany), and Ioan Mircea Pascu (Romania).

Of the eight MEPs that wanted only the minor reform, two replied to an emailed request by this website to explain their vote.

Centre-right Spanish MEP Ramon Luis Valcarcel Siso pointed out that the Bureau's decision included "more detailed lists of what can be paid out of the general expenditure allowance, with better description of the items".

"This decision – which I supported with my vote – also provides for further clarity on the rent of offices, specifying that in the member states this needs to reflect market prices. Moreover, the decision foresees the possibility for MEPs to put their expenses under the control of external auditors, or even the parliament itself, and to make these public," said Valcarcel.

"And last but not least, it makes mandatory for MEPs to have a separate bank account for the general expenditure allowance," he added.

"I believe that these steps contribute to better protecting European taxpayers' money," said the Spanish EPP member.

"The aim is not, therefore, to hamper transparency efforts, but completely the opposite: the aim is to foster transparency throughout the control and public accountability mechanisms referred above," said Valcarcel.

His line was echoed by his EPP colleague Rainer Wieland, from Germany.

"Mr Wieland and the EPP followed the line of the majority of the plenary-vote seeking better guidance on and avoiding additional costs related to checking the GEA-spending. The bureau decision gives this guidance," said Wieland's advisor in an email.

However, that is a somewhat selective reading of the plenary resolutions.

The adopted text in October did indeed recall "a need to work on a definition of more precise rules regarding the accountability of the expenditure authorised under this allowance, without generating additional costs to parliament".

But it also explicitly called on the Bureau to "make the following concrete changes concerning the general expenditure allowance: the general expenditure allowance should be handled in all cases in a separate bank account; all receipts pertaining to the general expenditure allowance should be kept by members; the unspent share of the general expenditure allowance should be returned at the end of the mandate".

In other words, the plenary called for more obligations and transparency on MEPs.

These requirements were adopted as separate amendments. The one on receipts was adopted with only a very thin majority – 318 against 316 – but a majority nevertheless.

The final text, including the amendments, was adopted with a majority of 414 against 163; and 90 abstentions.

According to the website Votewatch, six of the eight Bureau MEPs that blocked further reforms had in fact supported the resolution with the three-point wish list – of which the Bureau decided to grant only one.

Liberadzki was absent, and Wieland abstained in that October vote.

However, these two did support the resolution adopted two months ago, according to Votewatch, in which the exact same reform wish list was repeated. This April resolution received an even bigger majority of 540 against 147.

Despite their own votes supporting one or both resolutions, the eight Bureau members later dismissed two of the resolutions' concrete requests in their Bureau decision.

Team 6

The Bureau members that wanted to introduce more reforms were mostly from left-leaning and liberal groups.

They were mostly in line with the proposal from a working group which had worked out the plenary's request for a reform in detail.

Bureau member Pavel Telicka was also one of the working group members.

The Liberal Czech MEP told EUobserver on Tuesday by phone that keeping receipts would not have been "a difficult exercise".

"For me this is not about returning the money or not. It is about putting real order in the bookkeeping," he said.

"It is a question of personal responsibility and integrity," Telicka added.

Other MEPs in Telicka's camp were Greek left-wing MEP Dimitrios Papadimoulis; Finnish Green MEP Heidi Hautala; and Fabio Massimo Castaldo, from Italy's Five Star Movement.

In a press statement on Tuesday, Hautala called the decision "tragically short-sighted", and singled out the EPP and a "majority of S&D members".

"The fact that some members of the Bureau have just voted to maintain the status quo shows that certain political groups are not listening to everyday people's concerns about how tax-payers money is being spent," she said.

Two of five S&D Bureau members were in fact on Hautala's side: Italian MEP David-Maria Sassoli and French MEP Sylvie Guillaume.

Guillaume told EUobserver in an email that she and Sassoli were in favour of reimbursement of unused funds and "the inclusion of checks guaranteeing the adequate use of the money by a paying agent providing a certificate published respect of the MEP pages of the EP website".

"I consider that this was the very least that needed to be approved by our institution," she said.

The centre-left MEP did not answer EUobserver's question if she could explain why three of her fellow S&D members voted differently.

Two sources said the vote on Monday happened without a debate, and that parliament president Tajani did not cast a vote – although his participation would not have changed the outcome.

MEP Telicka said that he would suggest to the Bureau that the decision is put on the agenda for one of the next meetings.

Not because the vote can be changed, but to "reflect" on the issue.

"We need to come back to it," he said.

The Green group, which holds 52 of 751 seats in the parliament, said on Wednesday morning that it would contest the decision by introducing an amendment to the parliament's annual discharge procedure.

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.

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