Sunday

9th Aug 2020

US Congress has stronger ethics oversight than EU Parliament

  • Enforcement of ethics and codes of conduct in the EU parliament is almost non-existent. (Photo: European Parliament)

The US Congress has stronger ethics and oversight of lawmakers than their counterparts in the European Parliament.

The findings, among others, were revealed in a report out Tuesday (10 July) by the European branch of Transparency International, an NGO.

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Daniel Freund, who authored the report, told reporters in Brussels that unlike MEPs, members of the US congress are banned from holding second or third jobs.

"They are not allowed to work as lawyers, consultants, let alone lobbyists and any kind of payment to them, any kind of revenue that could be reasonably seen as a channel to get money to a member of Congress is prohibited," he said.

Income that is earned such as on book deals is capped at 15 percent, with the rest going into the US federal budget.

The European Parliament, however, has members that collectively earned up to €41m from side jobs since mid-2014.

This includes Italian socialist MEP Renato Soru, who tops the money list with €1.5m from his work as director of the Italian telecommunications company he founded, Tiscali.

But, by political group, the largest number of side earners are found in the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), composed of virulent anti-EU, far-right populist MEPs ranging from the Italian League to Austria's Freedom Party (FPO).

These wages come on top of their public salaries and generous monthly expense allowance, posing broader questions on conflicts of interest and the total lack of sanctions against those that have clearly breached parliamentary code of conduct rules.

MEPs in their declarations of interest are only required to provide basic one word descriptions such as 'freelancer' or 'entrepreneur', making it difficult to discern any wrongdoing.

Indeed, one Danish liberal MEP had in 2012 declared himself 'Master of the Universe' in his declaration.

Others, like former European commissioner turned centre-right MEP Viviane Reding, Austrian centre-right MEP Paul Rubig, and Dutch socialist MEP Agnes Jongerius, hold paid positions in organisations listed in the EU lobby register.

Reding left the commission to stand as an MEP in May 2014, and since being elected has taken up board positions at Bertelsmann Foundation, among others.

The European Parliament prohibits MEPs from being paid lobbyists. Transparency International has asked all three to explain their positions but received no response.

Freund described the parliament's ethics oversight as "dysfunctional", noting that the assembly's president Antonio Tajani, in charge of dishing out any punishment, has yet to act on any pending cases.

Parliament also skirts rules on MEPs taking up jobs after they leave office in areas they legislated on, known as a 'cooling off' period.

"There are also cooling off periods in the [US] House and in the Senate to prevent any ethics conflicts when they leave office - again, in the European parliament, there are hardly no rules whatsoever," said Freund.

His report also looked at oversight bodies in France and Canada, both of which are far tougher than the European Parliament.

France set up its own authority to probe abuse following media revelations that the government's budget minister had stashed money in secret Swiss bank accounts. It now has access to information like tax declarations and land and real estate registries.

Silence - EU parliament's defence of choice

The European Parliament also set up its own authority following a cash-for-amendments scandal in 2011. But the body, made up of sitting MEPs, can only provide guidance and recommendations for Tajani to impose sanctions.

Such sanctions range from having MEP per diem payments docked, to being stripped of chairing parliamentary committees.

Out of the 24 breaches that reached Tajani or his predecessor, Martin Schulz, only one has resulted in a reprimand, given to German far-right MEP Udo Voigt over his failure to disclose a trip abroad.

Tajani's spokesman has yet to respond to this website why the oversight within the parliament is considered so weak.

Nor have some of the biggest earners listed in TI's report responded, including French MEP Jean-Luc Schaffhauser who earns up to €470,000 as a consultant for MWD Dubai. Schaffhauser belongs to the National Rally, the former National Front.

This latest revelation comes in the wake of a decision last week by most of the European Parliament leadership to keep the public in the dark of how MEPs spend some €40m of taxpayer money on daily expenses like hotels and restaurants.

It also follows other scandals where MEPs have committed fraud using EU taxpayer money to pay salaries of people not working for the EU institutions.

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