Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Leading MEP defends expenses secrecy

  • The public is kept in the dark on how MEPs spend their money on themselves (Photo: European Parliament)

The man tasked with making the European Parliament (EP) more transparent has said the general public should be more concerned about how MEPs are nominated than how they spend their monthly expenses.

Rainer Wieland, a German centre-eight MEP who is also the parliament's vice-president and who is spearheading reforms to build public trust in the EP ahead of elections next year, spoke out in a frank interview with EUobserver last week.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

His own political group, the EPP, recently adopted a resolution in Helsinki calling to make EU institutions more accountable and more open to public scrutiny.

But Wieland has long taken the view that MEPs should not have to disclose how they spend their monthly allowance - a sum worth €4,416 each a month, or €40m of taxpayers' money each year.

When asked what kind of message it sent to the public that he stood in contradiction to his own group line, Wieland replied: "I consider this as not really important".

Instead, he said people should be more concerned about how members are nominated, noting that some are selected personally by their party's leaders.

He disclosed that he himself pays part of his €4,416 a month allowance to his own law firm.

"I hired my two rooms as a local office from my law firm and I pay exactly my law firm what they pay to the landlord," he said.

It would create too much bureaucracy for MEPs to document their spending, he added, citing examples of parliament services collecting receipts for purchases of individual bananas.

Under current arrangements, MEPs get the money as a lump sum directly into their own personal bank accounts.

No receipts are kept, rendering oversight next to impossible.

Wieland is leading an EP working group tasked "to clarify and strengthen the existing rules and good practices" on how the money is spent.

The monthly allowance is meant to be spent on things like office supplies and other office expenses, but Wieland suggested that at least one former MEP had handed over unspent funds to a political party, in violation of the rules.

"Years ago, I spoke to a member from a country which was just mentioned [The Netherlands] and I said: 'What if at the end of the year something is remaining?'. And this person said: 'Well, then I go to the post, buy stamps, and present it to the party'," noted Wieland.

He said it was cheaper for taxpayers to have the allowance paid out as a lump sum because it would take up to 40 additional EP staff to monitor a more detailed regime.

He also cited the MEPs' "freedom of mandate" in defence of his views - a legal principle that gives them wide berth to act independently of supervision.

British Labour and Tory party MEPs have published their monthly accounts online for years despite it.

But when asked by EUobserver whether their voluntary disclosure had somehow impaired the "freedom" of their work, Wieland said disclosure and non-disclosure were questions of different national cultures.

"We have a different political culture [in Germany] and I believe in the freedom of the mandate and I believe that the lump sum is cheaper," he said.

Some MEPs disagree, however.

Dutch left MEP Dennis de Jong told this website earlier this year that he pays an external auditor at most around €1,000 a year to ensure his accounts are clean.

"That didn't cost me a lot to have that done so why would civil servants working here in DG Fins [the EP's finance department] be more expensive than an external auditor?" he said.

Efforts to allow De Jong to publish those accounts on the European Parliament's own website have also been delayed as part of larger reforms of an internal rulebook for MEPs.

German Green deputy Sven Giegold had tabled a compromise on the rules, demanding that MEPs be allowed to voluntarily publish their audits on the parliament's homepage.

The costs of the audit, under his proposal, would be deducted from the monthly expense.

MEPs would be allowed to choose their own auditor, opening up the possibility for them to select someone who was friendly.

But in an emailed statement, Giegold told this website that the opacity of the current regime, also known as the general expenditure allowance, harms the EP's reputation.

"Since 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," he said.

Giegold's compromise, along with two other demands to require some MEPs to meet only registered lobbyists and to publish details those meetings, are now to be voted on in the constitutional affairs committee (Afco) on Thursday (6 December).

The vote had been scheduled for last week, but was delayed following a late opinion delivered by the European Parliament's legal service.

The opinion had already been delayed by weeks before that, posing questions on whether internal factions were aligned against it.

Exclusive

EU parliament to renege on transparency promises

Internal legal European parliament documents circulated Tuesday, and seen by EUobserver, rule it illegal to force MEPs to meet only registered lobbyists. The opinion will likely render a larger effort to create a mandatory register for lobbyists null and void.

Centre-right MEPs want transparency vote to be secret

A number of centre-right MEPs are pushing for a secret ballot on a plenary vote that would make EU lawmakers more transparent and accountable to the public - in a move described as "absurd" by Transparency International.

Magazine

The murky perks of an MEP

Accountability and transparency are in short supply when it comes to how MEPs spend €40m every year on "office supplies". Efforts to pry open this secrecy have been met with strong resistance from many of the parliament's most powerful MEPs.

Exclusive

Ombudsman backs EUobserver on MEP expenses

The European Parliament should have granted access to documents on a decision about how transparent MEPs should be in future with their office expenses, says EU Ombudsman.

News in Brief

  1. EU Scream podcast wins media award
  2. Sturgeon will set out Scottish independence plan next week
  3. Slovenia, Croatia ex-leaders highlight jailed Catalans
  4. Italian court tells Facebook to reopen fascist party's account
  5. EU extends sanctions on Russia until mid-2020
  6. UK exit poll gives Johnson majority of 86
  7. Orban: 'financial guarantees' to reach climate neutrality
  8. Merkel hopes EU leaders agree 2050 climate-neutrality

This is the (finally) approved European Commission

MEPs gave the green light to the entire new European Commission during the plenary session in Strasbourg - but with the abstention of the Greens and a rejection by the leftist group GUE/NGL.

Magazine

Welcome to the EU engine room

Welcome to the EU engine room: the European Parliament (EP's) 22 committees, which churn out hundreds of new laws and non-binding reports each year and which keep an eye on other European institutions.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. EU values face scrutiny This WEEK
  2. EU sighs relief after 'decisive' Johnson victory in UK
  3. Huge win for Conservatives in UK election
  4. Behind bars: a visit to an imprisoned Catalan politician
  5. Leaders agree 2050 climate neutrality - without Poland
  6. EU leaders cagey on 'Future of Europe' conference
  7. Pressure mounts to grill Malta's Muscat at EU summit
  8. Revealed: little evidence to justify internal border checks

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us