Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

EU parliament will not budge on office expenses

  • MEPs receive €4,416 per month to cover office expenses, but are not required to keep receipts or return any unused sums at the end of their mandate (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament has rejected EUobserver's appeal to have certain documents related to the MEPs' office expenses system published.

In a letter dated 12 September – delivered on Monday (17 September) – parliament vice-president Livia Jaroka wrote that there was no overriding public interest in the documents' disclosure.

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  • Hungarian MEP Livia Jaroka is the European Parliament vice-president responsible for matters relating to access to documents - but also a member of the Bureau (Photo: European Parliament)

She confirmed an earlier decision that publication would "seriously undermine the protection of parliament's decision-making process".

The case is about documents tabled for a meeting held on 2 July, when the parliament's vice-presidents voted on how to reform the controversial system of the so-called general expenditure allowance (GEA).

All 751 MEPs receive the monthly GEA lump sum of €4,416 with no questions asked.

This has led to criticism and controversy - and a majority of MEPs have expressed support for at least some reform of the system.

The parliament tasked an ad-hoc working group to come up with several reform options.

On 2 July, the parliament's body in charge of internal procedures, the Bureau, decided to go only for a minimal reform of the system - rejecting some changes requested by a parliament majority.

For example, the Bureau rejected a requirement for MEPs to at least keep receipts.

Subsequently, this website filed an access to documents request, asking for publication of the working group proposal and an accompanying letter by working group chairman - and Bureau member - Rainer Wieland, a German MEP from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

On 25 July, parliament's secretary-general Klaus Welle wrote to EUobserver to reject this request - a decision which we then appealed.

But in the new letter, parliament vice-president Jaroka rejected the arguments given by EUobserver.

EUobserver challenged Welle's argument that MEPs in working groups would engage in "self-censorship" if they knew that their ideas were published, given that they are professional politicians who submit their views for public scrutiny all the time.

But Jaroka sided with Welle, saying that publishing the papers now would undermine future working groups.

"The confidentiality of the deliberations, and of its relevant documents, guaranteed, on the one hand, that alternatives would be presented without reservation by the working group to the Bureau and, on the other hand, the possibility for the Bureau to hold a frank and open discussion, based on thorough information on all possible alternatives," she wrote.

"If the requested documents … were disclosed to the public, similar working groups in the future would not be able to fulfil their task of advising the Bureau, as their members would refrain from proposing innovative alternatives and the information submitted to the Bureau would not be as comprehensive as in the present case," Jaroka argued.

The EU's access to documents regulation allows institutions to invoke exceptional cases to keep documents secret, if disclosure may undermine their decision-making procedure.

However, this exception should not apply if there is an overriding public interest.

EUobserver noted that it was in the EU's citizens' interest that the documents were made public, because it involved the issue of how taxpayer money was spent, and it involved MEPs deciding on the GEA - which they receive themselves.

But according to Jaroka, the public interest to which EUobserver referred was "abstract and very general".

"While it is true that there is an interest of the public in the control of the expenditure of public money, which includes the pecuniary benefits enjoyed by MEPs, the public funding of the GEA does not entail that access should be granted to any preparatory documents," she wrote.

"Against that background, parliament has to consider that the interest that you invoke does not outweigh the interest in the protection of parliament's internal decision-making process," she noted.

The decision to keep the documents secret seems to conflict with a previous demand by a majority of MEPs.

An 86 percent majority adopted a text already in 2016 which said that all documents referred to in the Bureau's agenda should "in principle" be published on the parliament's website. The documents in question were mentioned in the Bureau's agenda for the 2 July meeting.

Conflict of interest?

The parliament's response also brought to light a potential conflict of interest.

The initial response was written by Welle, who as secretary-general is normally present at Bureau meetings.

But the response to the appeal was written by Jaroka, who is the parliament's vice-president responsible for matters relating to access to documents.

However, Jaroka is also a member of the Bureau.

In fact, the Hungarian MEP of the EPP group was one of the eight vice-presidents that supported only a minor reform of the system - she was on the winning side of the vote with 8 against 6.

Review request dismissed

The whole saga of the GEA reform does not paint the parliament in the best possible light, in the run-up to the May 2019 elections for a new European Parliament.

Just a few days after the Bureau took its GEA decision, another parliament body called the Conference of Presidents - of which all political group leaders are a member - discussed the matter.

The group leaders asked parliament president Antonio Tajani - a member of both bodies - to ask the Bureau to review the decision.

The Bureau, meeting again last Monday (10 September), refused to.

Bureau member Heidi Hautala, a Finnish MEP from the Greens group, criticised the decision.

"The credibility of the European Parliament is at stake: we cannot demand openness and transparency from others, if those principles are not followed within our own institution," she told EUobserver in an email.

"The Bureau should be accountable to the MEPs and the EU citizens as a whole, and respond to their justified worries. There is still a chance to resolve the issue and reach a responsible result," she said.

Her colleagues from the Green group, German MEP Sven Giegold and Swedish MEP Max Andersson, are trying to introduce new rules without involving the Bureau.

The two have tabled amendments to be included in a reform of the parliament's rules of procedure.

"If the president and the majority of vice-presidents continue to obstruct the implementation of the plenary's call for transparency, the plenary has to take back the process and write transparency of MEP's expenses directly into its rules of procedure," said Giegold in a press statement last week.

Court case

Meanwhile, the Court of Justice has announced that it will rule next week in a case that also involves the GEA.

Several journalists had requested copies of documents related to MEP's travel expenses, subsistence allowances, office expenses and assistants expenses.

The parliament had rejected the requests. The Luxembourg-based court will decide on 25 September whether to annul that rejection.

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