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25th Sep 2020

Investigation

The EU committee's great 'per diem' charade

  • The European Economic Social Committee is a consultative body, based in Brussels. It issues non-binding opinions (Photo: EU)

On a chilly Tuesday morning in December 2018, trade unionist Liina Carr stepped out of her office in Brussels.

Her destination was a meeting 3km away at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), a consultative body that gives civil society groups and others a platform to express their opinions on EU issues.

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  • EESC plenary session in July 2019 (Photo: ©EU 2019)

After signing the customary EESC attendance list, she returned to work before noon to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), where she earns up to €8,600 per month (pre-Belgian tax and deductions).

For having attended that morning session, the EESC gave her a €290 subsistence allowance of public taxpayer money to cover accommodation, food and local transport.

A typical sandwich in Brussels is up to €5, a metro or bus ticket €2.50 or €2.10 if purchased in advance. An UberX is around €10 for a 3km trip.

Daily allowance records, obtained by EUobserver, reveal Carr received €46,110 from a total of 159 meetings held exclusively in Brussels between January 7, 2015 to May 2, 2019.

An official resident of Estonia, she also lives and works full time in the Belgian capital.

With no need for a hotel, Carr told this website that she uses the allowance to help cover the costs of her own flat in Brussels and other undefined expenses described as legitimate.

Carr has been a confederal secretary at the Brussels-based ETUC office since October 2015, where her work includes social protection policy and getting fairer minimum wages for people struggling to get by.

"Not all meetings in the EESC are full-day meetings," she said of the morning session on 18 December, in an email to this website in May.

"Quite naturally after the end of the meeting I return to the ETUC to continue working on ETUC issues," she said, noting an alternate was slated, but unable to take her spot, for the EESC morning session due to a scheduling conflict.

She had also claimed €290 for a meeting listed as a "buffet lunch" on 12 December, according to documents released from the EESC, following a freedom of information request. The ETUC, in a post-publication email, noted Carr had also attended a meeting at the EESC on the same day.

But Carr is far from alone when it comes to cashing in on EESC 'per diems' (the Latin term for daily allowances) for members primarily based in Belgium. Perhaps among the more obvious are the Belgians themselves.

The Belgian Dozen

Twelve EESC members are Belgian and only one takes no money from per diems.

The Belgian recipients include Daniel Mareels, a former boss at the Belgian Financial Sector Federation.

He received €85,260 between October 6, 2015 to July 4, 2019 for meetings held in Brussels. This included an allowance for the Jubel Festival last September where people gathered in a big park in Brussels to celebrate democracy.

Rudy De Leeuw, a Flemish trade unionist leader, who stepped down as president of Carr's European Trade Union Confederation in May 2019, took a more modest sum of €15,950 over the same period in Brussels.

Among those was a "cultural event" preceded by a meeting on 26 November 2018, also held inside the EESC, for which he received €290.

His counterpart Anne Demelenne, another Belgian and recent former head of the General Federation of Belgian Labour, took home €69,020 of daily allowances from the EU taxpayer over a similar period and place.

One of her EESC meetings, held on 13 December 2017, was a hearing listed as "lessons learned for avoiding the severity of austerity policies in the EU".

Demelenne's seminar on that day ended with a €290 allowance from the public purse.

Belgians Alain Coheur took €54,520, Raymond Coumont €57,710, Philippe de Buck €46,110, Ronny Lannoo €64,960, Dominique Michel €37,120, Paul Soete €34,220, Yves Somville €55,390 and Ferre Wyckmans €52,780 for meetings all held in Brussels.

Although there could be more, EUobserver has identified some 30 members of the EESC, out of 350, who are either working and/or living in Brussels or nearby.

This information was gleaned off their online CVs, LinkedIn profiles, EESC declarations of financial interest, Facebook pages, and press clippings - or any combination of those.

Some are trade unionists. Others are corporate lobbyists, retired bankers, or people working full time in other industries or in civil society.

Philippe de Buck, for instance, is a senior executive advisor at Hill&Knowlton, a lobby group in Brussels whose clients include the offshore Cayman Islands ministry of financial services.

Other EESC members also based primarily in Brussels are citizens of Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Sweden.

Altogether, the taxpayer paid out some €1.47m to this small group of individuals from the start of 2015 to July of this year.

Only one person, among the 30 identified by this website, did not request a daily allowance.

His name is Olivier Valentin, a liberal Belgian trade unionist whose head office is based in the city of Ghent, some 20 minute train ride from Brussels.

EESC vice-president claims €93,090 per diem

Isabel Cano Aguilar is the vice-president of the EESC and will serve in that role until next year.

She is from Spain and is also the head office of the General Union of Workers in Brussels.

Asked how she enjoys living in Brussels during a live interview with Belgian radio BXFM last summer, she told them she spent some 70 percent of her time in the city.

"I am somewhat already a little bit Belgian," she said, in fluent French.

Yet Cano Aguilar pocketed €93,090 of per diems between October 6, 2015 to June 28, 2019 for 321 meetings held only in Belgium and almost entirely in Brussels. All taxpayer paid.

In early 2017, she claimed a €290 daily allowance for attending a training session at the EESC on how to file and reimburses expenses through an online portal.

In March this year, she declared another €290 following a visit to the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, a city 55km from Brussels.

Other oddities include collecting per diems on events listed as "vice-presidency day" after her appointment to the role, which she attended 68 times from March 23 2018 until 24 June 2019.

The biggest payout, however, went to Oliver Ropke, head of office at the Brussels Office of the Austrian Trade Union. He took €93,670 between 2015 to July 2019 for his Brussels-based meetings.

All this public money comes on top of their own (often generous) salaries, posing questions on how they can then claim a daily allowance from the public coffer while attending a meeting in the same city where they work or live or both.

EUobserver had attempted to contact all those named but was redirected to the EESC's press service, which said the granting of allowances compensates for the time spent by members in performance of their duties and for related administrative costs.

"It appears misleading to ask for explanations about allowances received over a four-year period, rather than break this amount down by year," they said, noting that tasks and responsibilities of each member may vary from year to year.

The rules

Ethical considerations aside, on the surface, none of them have broken any explicit rule.

All are entitled to the daily allowance, including delegates of the committee's consultative commissions, their respective alternates and the committee experts.

But how they spend it - or indeed whether the expenses incurred in Brussels actually add up to €290 per day - is another matter altogether.

Using a per diem financed by the taxpayer to help pay for an apartment in Brussels appears to be somewhat borderline, especially when one earns €8,600 a month (pre-Belgian tax and deductions) at another job in the same city.

Asked if this was a legitimate use of the money, the EESC press service in an email said "the use that each particular member makes of the allowances received is a strictly private matter."

The EESC also does not keep tabs on where its 350 members live, citing data protection and privacy rules.

But the same institution does keep meticulous records on their daily allowances, listing them by date, place and by function.

These records are available through freedom of information requests, which is how EUobserver obtained the tally for each.

"Each member received €290 for each meeting he/she attended," said the EESC of the released records of the members named in this article.

This article was updated on Monday (26 August, 2019) at 14:35 at the request of the ETUC adding that Carr's gross salary is Belgian, that she started at the ETUC in October, that she attended an EESC meeting on the day of the lunch buffet, that Deleeuw's mandate as EESC president ended in May, and that his cultural event was preceded by a meeting.

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