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13th Dec 2019

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Documents on new rules for MEP expenses kept secret

  • Parliament secretary-general Klaus Welle (l) at the 2 July Bureau meeting, which saw MEPs decide to adopt only a minimal reform of the office expenses system (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament is refusing to make public documents that were used to prepare the decision to introduce only a minimal reform of its MEP office expenses system, citing a risk of "self-censorship".

In a letter to EUobserver, the parliament's secretary-general Klaus Welle said that publication of the requested documents "would seriously undermine the institution's decision-making process".

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  • German MEP Rainer Wieland chaired a working group which proposed new expenses rules, but the parliament wants his letter on that proposal to remain secret (Photo: European Parliament)

The papers were prepared for a 2 July meeting during which the parliament's fourteen vice-presidents voted on how to change the rules on the so-called general expenditure allowance (GEA) – a monthly sum of €4,416 given to all 751 MEPs to cover office-related costs.

The system has been criticised for its lack of scrutiny because the taxpayer-funded money is given as a lump sum and MEPs do not need to keep any receipts.

A working group of MEPs was set up to come with a proposal to introduce additional rules, and on 2 July it was put to the members of the 'bureau', the body in charge of parliament procedures.

The bureau voted on the working group proposal, which included several options. According to multiple sources, an 8-6 majority decided to adopt only a minimal reform, rejecting among other things a requirement for MEPs to return any unused money at the end of their five-year term.

In an access to documents request, EUobserver asked for publication of the working group proposal and an accompanying letter by working group chairman Rainer Wieland.

Wieland is a German MEP from the largest political group, the European People's Party, and also a bureau member.

Welle denied the request, arguing that the working group's task was "sensitive" and that it needed "a relation of trust with the bureau" to function properly.

The secretary-general noted that the rules on the expenses system were "intensely debated and give rise to litigation". He referred to "recent cases publicised in the press" – without elaborating – and that the GEA debate was a "recurrent topic".

"In this context, parliament considers that the publication of Mr Wieland's letter and of the decision proposal would put at stake its ability to discuss GEA issue thoroughly," wrote Welle.

"If working groups in a controversial area such as the one at hand had to expect that their working results were published, their ability to perform their tasks would be at stake, and the bureau would become unable to obtain the advice and support it may need from such ad hoc bodies," he added.

The German, the highest-ranked non-political parliament official, noted that if the letter and proposal were published, that would mean that its content could be compared with the final decision.

"If options included in the proposal, or views discussed in the letter were disclosed to the public, the risk of them being used to challenge the actual decision or to extract concessions from the services applying it would become very high," Welle said.

'Self-censorship'

"Not only the eventual decision itself could be affected by the publication of the documents concerned by your application," he noted.

"If the letter and the decision proposal were to be published, the debate and the preliminary deliberations within parliament would also be inevitably undermined," said Welle, who was present at the bureau meeting in July.

"Working group members and the services involved in the drafting of the decision proposal would practise self-censorship in the future. They would be pressured into avoiding to express some contrasted views or novel proposals for fear that those views or proposals could become publicly available."

'Shocking'

Transparency and ethics campaigner Margarida Silva, of the Corporate Europe Observatory group, said the parliament's response was "simply shocking".

"It seems that the parliament is refusing access to the bureau's proposal because it expects it will be scrutinised and criticised by the public," she told EUobserver in an email.

"What accountability can there be if only documents that are publicly palatable are released?"

She added that transparency was particularly important for the issue of MEP allowances, the rules of which are decided by MEPs themselves.

"This is an area where there have been successive scandals which have increased public mistrust in the institution. To refuse access to these documents would only feed that sentiment," said Silva.

Court of Justice

"Open and transparent government is a fundamental right in Europe," said German Green MEP Sven Giegold in an email to this website, adding that the parliament's leadership should feel "committed" to this right.

Giegold recommended EUobserver to appeal the decision – which it has already done – and if necessary go to the European Court of Justice.

"The European Court of Justice has consistently ruled for far-reaching access to documents," he said.

"It would be really sad if the parliament needed to be forced to transparency again [after Di Capitani]," said Giegold.

The case De Capitani v European Parliament was about whether citizens have a right to access to documents related to informal negotiations with other EU institutions about draft legislation.

The parliament had been of the opinion that those papers should remain secret, but earlier this year the Luxembourg-based court ruled against it.

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