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25th Jan 2021

EU court chief defends MEPs' expenses secrecy

  • Marc Jaeger has been president of the General Court of the European Union since 2007. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The head of one of Europe's top courts has said MEPs' right to privacy is more important than taxpayers' right to know how they spend their money.

"The question was whether the justification for these costs would reveal personal data and probably the answer was yes and therefore data protection was more important than the costs aspects," Marc Jaeger, who presides over the General Court of the European Union in Luxembourg, told press on Wednesday (24 October).

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  • MEPs' expenses cost EU taxpayer €100m a year (Photo: European Parliament)

He spoke in a personal capacity after the court, last month, made it more difficult for reporters to hold MEPs accountable.

MEPs get a monthly €4,400 in a so-called "general expenditure allowance" to cover things such as rental of office space.

They also get allowances for travel, daily expenses, and staff in a complex system which adds up to more than €100m a year overall.

Given that the European Parliament (EP) does not keep documents on how MEPs spend their general expenditure allowance, a group of journalists had pressed to get access to documents on the travel, daily, and staff expenses.

But Jaeger's court ruled against them citing data protection rules.

He declined to comment further on the ruling, but voiced some sympathy with the journalists' frustration.

"The problem might be with the internal rules of the European Parliament on how to justify the payments to the individual members of the parliament, if they accept to pay them without any documents," he said.

The lack of access to those documents that were available might be "a problem, from your [the journalists'] point of view, [for] democracy," he added.

The reporters seeking access still have two months to appeal the General Court verdict at the highest level - in the European Court of Justice, also in Luxembourg.

Not a privacy issue

For their part, some of Europe's data protection chiefs disagreed with Jaeger.

Andrea Jelinek is the chair of the European Data Protection Board [EDPB], a body charged with overseeing the compliance of the EU's data protection regulation and rules.

Speaking in a personal capacity, she told EUobserver that journalists demanding access for documents from politicians or civil servants was not a privacy issue.

"To say or to pretend it is a data protection issue and so you can't investigate, it is just an easy way to keep questions away for those who don't want to answer," she said.

"It is not a privacy issue. If I spend official money, if I spend money of the [European] Commission, if I spend money of the EDPB for my [own] sake, for me, personally, [then] it is a criminal offence," said Jelinek.

Giovanni Butterelli, the European data protection supervisor (EDPS), also told this website on an earlier occasion that "politicians, leaders, have to accept strong limitations in terms of transparency".

Butterelli said that an EU regulation which governs access to documents, regulation 1049/2001, provides for wider transparency when "there is a strong demand for public controls on expenditures, procurement and good behaviour by leaders".

Asked if he agreed with Butterelli's statements, Jaeger declined to answer.

The balance between transparency and the protection of individual rights "is very delicate", he said.

Secrecy culture

Meanwhile, the general court's initial judgment has had knock-on effects elsewhere.

Some in the EP recently tabled amendments to say MEPs should keep receipts on how they spend the €4,400 "general expenditure allowance" and return unspent funds.

They also said MEPs should not use it for personal expenses or to fund grants or donations of a political nature.

But following on from the court verdict, Austrian centre-right MEP Paul Ruebig, for one, wrote an email to fellow deputies urging them to oppose the changes.

The EU courts in Luxembourg are the last line of defence when it comes to rule of law in European legislation and institutions, but the tribunals have themselves come under fire for lack of transparency.

Judges and members of the court also receive generous personal monthly allowances and other benefits.

EUobserver filed a freedom of information request to obtain a detailed breakdown of expenditures and allowances for the judges that ruled on the case between the journalists and the European Parliament.

This website also asked access to documents relating to the reimbursement of travel and accommodations costs and to the number of days actually spent by each judge in Luxembourg.

But the General Court denied the request because "it constitutes personal data".

The same court, in 2016, also ushered in reforms that make issues dealing with its own administration less open to public scrutiny.

Opacity multiplied

According to its statutes, dating back to 2007, members must swear "to preserve the secrecy of the deliberations of the [EU] court".

But in 2016 the vow of silence was extended to include "administrative matters".

Franklin Dehousse, a former judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union, has described the change as an evisceration of transparency.

"This ... is the best protection one could imagine for bad administration," he wrote in a recent op-ed.

Koen Lenaerts, the president of the European Court of Justice, told EUobserver that the provision was needed to ensure loyalty.

"There is in any job, be it for the private sector or the public sector, a loyalty requirement," he said.

The court had whistleblower rules, he said, which required people to issue complaints to the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, or to the European Ombudsman, but to stay away from press.

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Europe's top data protection chief says politicians have to accept transparency. His comments follows a case pitting journalists against the European Parliament, which refuses to disclose MEPs' expenses.

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