MEPs to use budget power over EU president perks
By Honor Mahony
Members of the European Parliament are prepared to use their hold over the bloc's purse-strings to try and make sure that the proposed new EU president does not wield too much power.
"The treaty is very clear about the duties [of the president]," the head of the parliament's budget committee, Reimer Boege, told EUobserver, noting that it says the person can have an administrative role, "but not take over an executive function."
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"Budget power is always used as a weapon. This is a principle," said the centre-right German MEP.
The parliament, wary of upsetting the fine balance of power between the EU institutions, will have a chance to use this weapon when it comes to negotiations later this year on the 2009 budget.
Mr Boege said that MEPs will looking out to see that if any extra perks for the president – a private plane and a residence are rumoured to be under consideration – would be "linked to lowering the communitarian level in the treaty", meaning reducing the power of the European commission and boosting inter-governmental politics.
The MEP urged member states who are due to deliver a draft budget to the parliament before the summer to show a "flexible and responsible approach" and indicated that euro-deputies would be inclined to accept a staff set-up for the president that does not exceed that of the immediate staff of the European commission president (around 20).
The first reading of the budget is due in October, but MEPs are already fretting about the institutional implications of the Lisbon Treaty, which is supposed to come into force by the beginning of next year.
Earlier this month, senior MEPs, including parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering, met European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to raise certain points about the treaty, particularly concerning the remit of the proposed president.
The treaty foresees a purely administrative role for the President of the European Council – the formal title of the post - organising the meetings of EU leaders.
However, there is the potential for external representation overlap with the foreign minister and the commission president, while the role is also set to be defined by the person who gets the job.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, one of those often mentioned as a contender for the post, had said the president should not be "an empty figurehead or a director of ceremonies."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who will head the EU later this year when the job description is to be decided, shares this opinion. Others, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are said to want to keep a lid on the president's powers.
A pre-democracy situation
For their part, MEPs suggest there will be a democratic legitimacy problem if the president has too much power, as the person will be chosen by the 27 EU leaders - in a closed-door process - and is not accountable to the European Parliament.
They note where the president has operational powers, that person is directly elected, such as in France or the US.
A powerful EU president that is neither subject to parliamentary control nor elected by citizens "would lead us to a pre-democratic situation," German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok told the constitutional affairs committee earlier this month.
Speaking about the possible size of the president's entourage - which some in council (the member states' body) have suggested should run to 60 people, including security officials, cabinet, chauffeurs and secretaries - Mr Brok said:
"I am of the opinion that if we cannot come to agreement on this, then we should abandon the gentleman's agreement whereby one does not mess with the budget of another institution, because now we are talking about operational powers. It is no longer about the implementation of purely organisational duties."
Correction. The text previously said MEPs would be inclined to accept a similar salary and staff arrangement as the European commission president for the president of the European Council. The sentence should only have said staff.