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9th Jul 2020

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EU parliament rejects ombudsman over expenses

  • A meeting in May 2018 between then president of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani (l) and European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly. Fast-forward a year and Tajani criticised O'Reilly's report on the confidentiality of internal documents (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament has dismissed a request by the European Ombudsman to publish documents related to office expenses, requested by EUobserver.

The previous parliament president, centre-right Italian Antonio Tajani, signed a letter dated 1 July, to ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, saying the parliament "respectfully disagrees" with her.

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  • MEPs receive a lump sum of €4,513 every month for office expenses. A majority of them voted in favour of a stricter regime, which the internal body Bureau dismissed (Photo: European Parliament)

The nub of the argument is that parliament questions whether the ombudsman had the right to criticise the institution's "margin of discretion" in deciding on publication of confidential papers, and that a case of an 'overriding public interest' was not convincingly made.

The case goes back to the summer of 2018, when the parliament's internal decision-making body, the Bureau, decided on how to reform the so-called general expenditure allowance (GEA).

The GEA is a lump sum of €4,513, which MEPs receive every month to cover expenses related to their office.

However, the money is given with no questions asked and no receipts needed, a situation which a majority of MEPs wanted to change.

Following a presentation of options by an ad-hoc working group consisting of Bureau members, the Bureau decided to require MEPs to open a separate bank account for the GEA.

But the Bureau dismissed requests from the plenary to mandate keeping receipts and that any unspent share of the taxpayer-funded allowance should be returned to parliament when an MEP leaves office.

The outcome of the Bureau decision was published on the parliament website, but not the papers from the working group.

EUobserver then filed an access to documents request.

The parliament twice refused to grant access, saying that if it did so, this would affect how future working groups would operate.

If they knew their internal discussions could become public, the parliament argued, such working groups would not be able to have a frank and open discussion weighing all options.

The ombudsman disagreed, and said in May this year that not publishing the papers was a case of maladministration.

"The ombudsman underlines the importance of the context of this case: this is a situation in which MEPs, as members of the Bureau, decide on the coverage of expenses from the GEA," the ombudsman's recommendation said.

"At the same time, those MEPs receive repayment of those expenses under the GEA," she added.

But in the letter signed by Tajani, the parliament said that the assessment that MEPs acted as decision-makers whilst also being beneficiaries was "misleading in this context".

"It might be recalled that the documents requested by the complainant were a proposal with options, prepared by a working group set up by the Bureau as an internal advisory body, which took no decision on the matter. By contrast, the situation where MEPs did indeed act as decision-makers was in the Bureau itself, the outcome of which was published by the parliament," the letter argued.

What is not mentioned here is that the working group consisted of MEPs who were also Bureau members.

"Parliament considers that, when balancing the interest of the public in scrutinising the members of the Bureau of the European Parliament against the interest in obtaining frank and complete advice as required by Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001, no pressing concern emerges to grant public access to an internal opinion the Bureau received from a working group, since every citizen may access the actual decision of the Bureau and, on that basis, make his or her own judgement on the way parliament manages the reimbursement of the expenses of its members," Tajani said.

Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 is the EU law that governs public access to documents.

He also questioned whether it was "appropriate" for the Ombudsman to cast judgment on whether there was an overriding public interest in publication, because "case-law recognises that the institutions enjoy a margin of appreciation when weighing public interest in publication of documents against a protected interest".

That protected interest would be that publication would "undermine the institution's decision-making process".

Tajani also referred to principles set out in a 1981 judgment of the Court of Justice.

"According to those principles, expenses may be reimbursed by means of a flat-rate sum in those cases in which it is appropriate, in order to reduce the administrative costs and burdens inherent to a system involving the verification of each individual item of expense."

'Procedural shortcomings'

The parliament also complained about "procedural shortcomings of the inquiry carried out by the Ombudsman".

It was upset that the ombudsman had made the recommendation public "before giving parliament the opportunity to defend its position by a detailed opinion in the light of preliminary findings of the Ombudsman".

In that case, EUobserver would have been informed of parliament's right of reply at the same time as the ombudsman's recommendation, "thus allowing a balanced appreciation of the case".

Tajani sent his letter to O'Reilly on 1 July this year, two days before he was succeeded as parliament president by David Sassoli.

Who is the new EU parliament president, David Sassoli?

The 63-year-old centre-left Italian MEP was elected president of the European Parliament, with 345 votes. A former journalist, Sassoli has experience as a vice-president of the parliament, but is little known.

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