Two EU bodies spending money like no tomorrow
In these times of austerity when the EU Council, European Commission and the European Parliament are making efforts to cut costs, there are two EU bodies operating under the radar whose budgets have been increasing in an unchallenged way: the Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR).
In May 2011 the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the EESC in particular to implement a "comprehensive spending review" and "identify possible savings" - but still their budgets rise.
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The budgetary control committee of the European Parliament challenged the secretaries general of the EESC and CoR - Martin Westlake and Gerhard Stahl - who once again failed to provide any concrete proposals on how savings might be made.
The figures speak for themselves.
Over the last eight years, the budgets of the EESC and CoR will have increased by some 50 percent, reaching €130 million and €86.5 million, respectively. There are around 50 officials at each committee with a minimum salary of €123.890 and six officials at each committee earning over €180,000 - more than the Dutch or UK prime minister.
Over half of the EESC's and the CoR's annual budgets are devoted to their members' expenses, travel costs and staff salaries and pensions.
In 2010, the 344 EESC members produced 181 opinions, which when divided with the annual budget means each opinion came at an average cost of €660,000, while no information is made available regarding how these opinions influenced legislation. If they did so at all.
Average travel expenses per member were €49,000, while a scheme whereby members receive 'lump sums' per meeting attended - without the need to prove they actually incurred the expenses - will still be in use until 2015. Why not now? The EESC remains elusive.
The main mandate of both committees is to "engage participation" from citizens. But there are many indications that neither committee is successful in this.
Many EU commentators over the last 20 years have questioned the impact of the EESC on the policy process. The CoR claims to provide "institutional representation" for all the EU's areas and regions. But the regional interests are already represented by the governments of the Member States, while many of Europe's regions have their own representations in Brussels.
And as far as outreach is concerned, the EESC and CoR websites account for 0.35 percent and 0.27 percent, respectively of total visitors to the europa.eu domain.
The EESC's own figures show an average of 31,472 unique users per month. By way of comparison, the website of London-based fundraising company JustGiving is accessed by over 2.5 million unique users per month.
The two EU committees do not fare any better on utilising social media, having fewer Facebook 'likes' or Twitter users than they do staff.
When challenged about these figures, Stahl simply responded that the CoR "cannot be there for direct contact with every citizen," while Westlake referred to the vice-president for communication of the EESC as being "extremely active" on Twitter.
I leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether having 556 Twitter followers qualifies as being "extremely active" in engaging participation from Europe's 500 million citizens.
There have already been calls for closer scrutiny of the EESC and CoR, and even their abolition, but so far to no avail.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the recently elected Danish leader and a former MEP, called for the abolition of both in 2003, stressing that they were "too costly" and were "not adding sufficient value".
Her recommendation was evidently ignored, given the enhanced roles (and budgets) the two committees received in the Lisbon Treaty.
In January 2011, an initial draft of a position paper by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (Alde) called for the abolition of both bodies. But then, following pressure from Alde members in the CoR, the published version of the paper recommended a restructuring instead.
The European Parliament has a duty to challenge the two committees on their budget increases and to provide scrutiny and transparency. Once the issue is out in the open, we may finally have to demand a merger of the EESC and CoR into a more cost-effective body, or indeed, as the current Prime Minister of Denmark and rotating president of the EU Council once proposed, their complete abolition.
The author is a Belgian MEP and vice president of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the EU parliament