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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From the horse's mouth

For those unable to believe the sheer scale and size of the allowances and expenses available to MEPs, Swedish Left Party MEP Jens Holm provided a candid account of how the current travel expenses system often leads to MEPs lining their pockets on Monday (25th May) on the BBC World at One:-

Jens Holm: I was shocked because I went to what they call the 'cash office' in the European Parliament and I brought my ticket and the receipt, the statement which said how much the ticket cost me, and I handed it over and they said "we are not interested in the receipt because everybody gets the same lump sum, according to the distance you have travelled"

For that trip from Brussels to Stockholm I got almost €2,000 and the ticket didn't cost me more than €500.
Interviewer: So, effectively you made €1,500 on that one journey alone...

JH: That's correct. But I'd like to underline that I do not take this money for myself. I give away all the money that I don't need for my travels.

Interviewer: But there's nothing to stop you, or any other Member of the European Parliament, just putting that money in your wallet...

JH: No, of course not. And I'd say the vast majority keep the money for themselves, they become rich.

Interviewer: Did you make any assessment of the difference between the money you were spending and the money you were given?

JH: I know that until February this year, the European Parliament has paid me about €200,000 in travel allowances and I'd say that I have donated around €150,000 to charities and also to my own party.

Interviewer: Have the authorities at the European Parliament given you any explanation for why the system operates in this way?

JH: Yes. And they give me different answers each time. Sometimes they say that this is a compensation for MEPs coming especially from central eastern and southern Europe where the salaries for MPs is not that high - so the travel allowance should be compensation for that.

Other times, they say that we should get paid this much because then we are free to buy a business class ticket. But still, if you buy a business class ticket it's impossible to find such an expensive ticket. So there aren't really any good explanations.

Well actually I think that they almost try to bribe us ...When you get so much money from a system you become quite loyal to it.

Interviewer: I'm sure you'll be aware that in Britain there's been a lot of debate in the last few weeks about expenses...Do you think we should be looking much more closely at the money our MEPs receive?

JH: Of course you should. The European Parliament just pays out too much money. I think journalists and also the public should scrutinise this and ask for a better system.

As of June, as part of the new 'Members' Statute', the travel allowance system will be reformed so that MEPs need to provide receipts for their tickets. However, for the rest of their expenditure (office expenses, daily subsistence allowance, staff allowances, etc) MEPs will still not be required to produce receipts.

Given the previously overly generous travel allowance one might wonder how much MEPs will continue to pocket in undisclosed expenses, even with the new MEPs' statute.

Proof that EU referendums are good

Very interesting that a new poll of all EU countries, commissioned by the European Parliament, shows that turnout in the European elections is expected to be higher in Ireland than any other country in the EU.

66 percent of Irish people say they are certain to vote, compared to an EU average of 43 percent - topping even Belgium and other countries where voting is compulsory. (Greece comes joint top with Ireland).

This is the country, don't forget, that recently held a much-coveted referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

So it is further proof that holding referendums on the big EU issues is a great way to stoke public interest and debate in the EU, and even improve the public's knowledge of how it works and what it does (see here for Professor Matt Qvortrup's existing research on how referendums on EU issues have bolstered public knowledge in a number of countries in the past)

This is precisely what the EU institutions claim they want - with their constant complaints that people aren't interested enough, and no-one understands what's going on. And yet they would rather rob their own grandmothers than support calls for the public to be consulted on things like the Lisbon Treaty.

The real expenses scandal is in Brussels

See here for our take:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/27/expenses-meps-european-parliament

Thursday, May 21, 2009

MEPs and their expenses - the facts

Over the weekend Open Europe published a new 'league table' of all 785 MEPs, ranking them on 20 different criteria, including how they voted on proposals to increase transparency and reduce the waste of taxpayers' money, attendance, whether they opt into the controversial second pension fund, and whether they voted to respect the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

There are some interesting findings. While the UK, for instance, fares comparatively well among its counterparts in Europe - coming fourth out of 25 - many British MEPs, while talking a good game at home about EU reform, in fact leave a lot to be desired on closer inspection of their behaviour in Brussels (and Strasbourg).

Par exemple:

- In April 2009, a majority of British MEPs (60%) voted to keep details about their own expenses secret, as well as voting against financial disciplinary measures for MEPs found guilty of misuse of funds, and voting to keep secret demands to pay back money. Only 24% of all British members voted to make expenses public.

- Only 13 out of 78 British MEPs voted in favour of a symbolic proposal calling for governments to respect the outcome of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty -before the referendum had even taken place.

- In 2005, 11 Labour MEPs voted in favour of a proposal to allow the deficit in MEPs' highly controversial, and possibly illegal, second pension scheme to be plugged with taxpayers' money. They also voted against attempts to oblige MEPs to contribute funds from their own pockets, as opposed to from their allowances, as is currently the case.

- Extraordinarily, in 2008 three Conservative British MEPS voted in favour of spending €290 million of taxpayers' money on subsidies to tobacco farmers - despite the fact that the EU simultaneously spends millions on anti-smoking campaigns, such as the €74 million campaign named "Help: for a life without tobacco".

- 30 British MEPs voted in favour of signing off the European Parliament's own accounts for 2006, despite serious concerns raised by the European Court of Auditors over allowances for MEPs' assistants. The auditors noted that only around 27% of the expenditure was adequately accounted for in 2006. Despite this, the European Parliament voted to clear the accounts.

You can also read our key findings from other MEPs here.

In the midst of the currenty public outcry over MPs' expenses, the ranking's findings on MEPs' expenses are particularly interesting.

Because also over the weekend, Gordon Brown told the FT that he would force Labour MEPs to publish receipts for all their expenses in future. This is a big move - as currently, ludicrously, MEPs are not required by the European Parliament to produce any receipts for their spending of public money. The move goes further than that offered by any other British party.

BUT - if they are serious about this idea, then why on earth is it missing from their manifesto for the European elections on 4 June? The manifesto was unveiled just 2 weeks ago - right in the middle of the expenses scandal unfolding at Westminster - so there can be no excuses that they didn't know this was going to be a big issue.

If Labour means business about keeping an publishing all receipts - which we sincerely hope they do, as this would send a powerful message to the EP and would put all 200 odd parties in the EP under pressure to do the same or change the rules - then Labour should change its manifesto immediately to reflect the new commitment. They have more than a week before the elections, so it's not too late.

Voters need to something to be able to hold them to (not that it worked with their manifesto commitment to a referendum on the EU Treaty, mind). Because our study shows that in 2005, three Labour MEPs voted against obliging MEPs to produce receipts for their travel expenses.

After all, as the front page of the Sun newspaper repeated this morning, Open Europe has found that the expenses we're referring to are no small matter - amounting to an enormous £363,000 a year per MEP. This is on top of the basic salary of £83,282 (representing a huge pay rise for UK MEPs from June onwards) £41,573 in ‘transition payments’ when they leave office, and pension rights of up to £30,000 for a single five-year term.

The expenses break down as follows:

£36,778 in 'subsistance allowances' (£259 a day for 142 days of the year)
£5,885 in language and IT courses
£87,407 in travel expenses (the EP's budget for 2009 puts aside €77,988,000 for 'ordinary travel expenses', which works out at €99,347 for every MEP)
£3,756 in 'additional annual travel allowance'
£183,776 in staff allowances, and
£45,648 in office expenses (£3,804 a month)

Unbelievable.

In June, there will be a slight change to the rules, which will mean that MEPs will be required to produce receipts for their travel expenses for the first time - however, offsetting that, is a new, explicit reference to 'business class' for flights even within the EU - raising the barrier instead of lowering it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Say what?

This is from yesterday's debate in the House of Commons on the Lisbon Treaty.

The Conservative MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford, David Evennett, asked Caroline Flint, Europe Minister:

"Can the Minister confirm categorically that any changes to the Lisbon treaty for any country would mean that the treaty needed to be re-ratified? Would the Government then hold a referendum on this matter?"

Great question - given the fact that the Irish government has promised in no uncertain terms not to put the same question to the Irish people, and yet in reality has no possible means of making any changes to it at all without triggering re-ratification in all the other EU member states - something it clearly has no intention of doing.

Caroline's answer?

"I think that it is dead if people vote against it."

What? If only! Apart from the fact that this clearly doesn't answer the question at all, it's a very strange response from someone who believes very strongly that a Treaty should not be dead if people vote against it - hence her enthusiastic support for its continuous reincarnation following three no votes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The weird and wonderful (?) world of the European Parliament


Join us on a journey through the more bizarre-o aspects of the European Parliament.

While the European Parliament is a serious chamber with important powers - it is also home to a number of oddities which add to its unique character.


A brief question to ease you in:

Which Parliaments in the world have no control over where they sit, and could not change it if they wanted to?

A. European Parliament
B. Cuba
C. North Korea
D. All of the above

Answer: D - what illustrious company for the European Parliament to be in.

The European Parliament sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg, usually referred to as the "travelling circus" (see here, here and here) is a huge waste of money and CO2 emissions (203 million euros and 18,8885 tonnes or carbon a year at last count). But it must be pointed out that it is not the fault of the EP that its members are forced to decamp to Strasbourg 12 weeks a year.

The Parliament's odd two-seat arrangement is fixed by a protocol in the Treaty of Amsterdam, which means that unanimity from the Council would be required to change it. Brussels is generally agreed to be the seat most likely to be kept in the event of the travelling circus being scrapped. This scenario is therefore unlikely, since France is so attached to the Strasbourg seat.

New research from the extremely useful Votewatch.eu website also shows us that in the topsy-turvy world of the European Parliament, salary is not commensurate with attendance at work. All MEPs are currently paid the same as MPs in their national Parliaments (although this is due to change in June), which means that Italian MEPs come out top in the pay stakes. They 'earn' 134,291 euros (£120,000) a year, compared to Bulgarian MEPs, who earn 9,200 euros a year.

However, Italian MEPs have the worst attendance record of any of the 27 national delegations, managing to show up to only 72% of sittings over the past five years. While attendance may not be everything, (it is good if MEPs achieve something useful once they turn up) Italian MEPs are offering their constituents a serious lack of value for money.
One other glorious oddity is that EP political groupings don't really reflect the particulars of national groupings which belong to them. The EP contains no fewer than 204 different political parties and the larger groupings often contain a motley band representing extremely different interests.
For example, the largest group in the EP, the centre-right EPP group, contains the pro-free trade, anti-CAP subsidies Swedish Moderates, and the French UMP party of President Sarkozy, which has demonstrated itself to be highly protectionist. The Conservatives' decision to leave the EPP grouping has been well-publicised , but the Conservatives have found themselves voting against the group on one third of occasions, demonstrating that EP groupings are vast and contain parties of vastly different interests.

What exactly do MEPs propose to do about expenses?

If there's one thing the British public is sick to death of right now, it's politicians and their expense claims.

So you would have thought that the parties would've sought to address this in a big way in their manifestos for the European elections on 4 June.

Because if you think Westminster's rotten, you should look at Brussels. At least at Westminster there are receipts to look at - in the murky world of EU politics, Members of the European Parliament don't even have to keep receipts for any of their expenses. So we will never find out exactly how they've been wasting spending taxpayers' money.

The European Parliament rules are not going to be changed anytime soon, so it's up to the individual parties to force their MEPs to adopt better standards for themselves, and to commit to doing their best to change the system from within.

To give credit where it's due, so far the Conservatives are the only party that have made any detailed effort to persuade people that they intend to shake things up in the EP. Following a pledge last year to publish the details of all Conservative MEPs' expenses online, which they first did in December (with the exception of Christopher Beazley - there's always one), their manifesto, published yesterday, states:

We will also make sure that our MEPs are committed to the highest standards in public life. We were the first party to require all its MEPs to publish a breakdown of their expenses. Our MEPs undertake to continue to publish their expenses online at regular intervals. We will urge other parties to follow suit.

Their "Commitment to the British people" has further details about what this actually means.

Meanwhile, the best the Lib Dems could do in their manifesto, unveiled last week, was:

We will continue to work to reform MEPs expenses, ensure transparency and end the abuses that have undermined public confidence.

Great. Thanks for the detailed commitments.

The Green Party says:

Strong action is also needed to clean up Brussels bureaucracy, and enforce a transparent and fair system for MEP expenses.

UKIP doesn't mention it and makes zero committments to actually do anything as the idea is just to sack the whole thing off and pull out the EU altogether.

Labour, meanwhile, (whose manifesto we come to last, because it was impossible to find on the Party website, and when we called up we found they had closed the offfice for a well-deserved two-hour lunch - oh, and then the office of Labour leader in the EP Glenis Willmott told us they would try to email us a copy of the manifesto, but "couldn't promise anything"), says:

Labour in Europe is working hard to deliver for the people of Britain and we have led the way in ensuring transparency. British Labour MEPs have all their office and staff expenditure reviewed by an independent auditor. British Labour MEPs have all their office and staff expenditure reviewed by an independent auditor.


So absolutely no intention to change anything then. In fact, the inferrence is that we should be happy with the status quo.

Friday, May 15, 2009

More news from Ireland

We've just been alerted to a great new blog from Irish Times journalist Jamie Smyth that will be looking at the EU, the European elections and the progress of the Lisbon Treaty. It should be a great source of information in the run up to the all important second Irish referendum on Lisbon, especially if his post today is anything to go by.

He reveals that EU Information Commissioner Margot Wallstrom is about to sign a €1.6 million contract with public relations company Edelman to sell "Europe" to the Irish people.

He notes that the tender documents for the PR contract "show the PR blitz will be aimed at the three groups who voted en masse against the Lisbon first time around: women; young people and low income families. More than half a million euro will be spent on cinema advertising - so if you are going to see a blockbuster this summer expect to see trendy adverts explaining why Europe is good for you."

Propaganda at its finest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Plug

Marta Andreasen, the EU's former Chief Accountant, last night launched her new book: "Brussels laid bare". It's a fantastic, spooky, read about the innumerable obstacles she faced while trying to implement reform of the EU's accounting system in the first months of the job, leading eventually to her dismissal.

We recommend anyone with an interest in the EU to read it - it's an eye-opener. You can buy it here.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

What's at stake?

The European Parliament's office in Ireland has created a website to inform voters - in a nice and neutral fashion - of 'what's at stake' in the European elections in June (yes, we're being sarcastic).

If you really want like to know what's at stake, you'll probably do better reading our recent briefing on the EP.