Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

In defence of MEPs

Yes, I’ve been slagging them off a lot over the last couple of days – but there are always two sides to everything. Jon Worth makes a lot of sensible points about the current expenses scandal:

MEPs get the same pay as MPs in Westminster, have to work in 3 places in 3 countries… The MEPs’ expenses total about £100 million a year, but there are 785 MEPs, each of whom pays normally 4 staff… The total staff of the EP as a whole – MEPs, assistants, secretariat – is similar in size to a small-ish UK government department… while the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions employs more staff that all the EU institutions in total…

No facts, no figures. Neither [the Times] nor Chris Davies MEP have listed how much of this £100 million is supposed to have been used in a fraudulent manner. The Times – lazily – just assumes all of it is.

All very fair, all very valid. Go read the whole thing.

The only addition I would make is to stress that the apparent lack of transparency in MEPs’ finances is hugely damaging to both the European Parliament and to the EU as a whole. The perennial eurosceptic claims that the EU is riddled with corruption are, I hope, an exaggeration (after all, the lack of sign-off on the EU budget year after year is always due to irregularities on the part of the individual member states, not the EU itself). But without complete financial transparency and openness, there’s no way we can tell.

As the EU’s token bit of democracy, the European Parliament should be setting an example. An update to Annex I of the EP’s Rules and Regulations, specifically Article 4, would seem to be necessary:

Pending the introduction of a statute for Members of the European Parliament to replace the various national rules, Members shall be subject to the obligations imposed on them by the legislation of the Member State in which they are elected as regards the declaration of assets

These current regulations, it would seem, are not good enough. Where is the promised statute replacing the mish-mash of evidently inadequate national rules? Every MEP should be subject to a detailed register of interests. Every MEP should have to give an account of what they are using their expenses for.

We don’t need an account of every paper clip and biro bought. We do, however – especially after these latest accusations – need a proper, watertight reassurance that our representatives aren’t ripping us off. We need confidence that we are being properly represented by hard-working, committed and honest men and women, or the whole system falls down. As Mill noted,

representative institutions are of little value, and may be a mere instrument of tyranny or intrigue, when the generality of electors are not sufficiently interested in their own government to give their vote… Popular election thus practised, instead of a security against misgovernment, is but an additional wheel in its machinery

Turn-out in European elections is low enough already. Give the electorate the impression that their MEPs are corrupt, it will become even lower. And without the people, the whole project will fall down. Mill again:

Political machinery does not act of itself. As it is first made, so it has to be worked, by men, and even by ordinary men. It needs, not their simple acquiescence, but their active participation

Come on, EP/EU – get your act together. The majority of MEPs are undoubtedly hard-working and honest. Give us some way of seeing that this is the case, and give it to us sharpish.

Update: Certain Ideas of Europe brings up something I’d forgotten to mention:

most people inside the European bubble blame the scandal on the astonishing differences in the salaries currently received by MEPs, who are paid the same as their counterparts in their respective national parliaments. That will change after the 2009 elections, but for the moment that means some ex-Communist nations pay MEPs some €850 a month, while the best paid deputies, from Italy, receive more than €12,000 a month.

7 Comments

  1. Yes, what you write is fair enough – openness is very much the flip-side of what I wrote… I was rather in ‘rant at The Times’ mode.

  2. Ranting at the Murdoch press from time to time is essential. A vital public service, I’d say – especially when they use their leader columns to spread misinformation to further their lord and master’s political ends.

  3. Actually, the MEPs *do* have a common statute now. It came into power in 2005 when the current parliament was elected: http://tinyurl.com/39p72p

    The thing that is lacking is a common statute for MEP assistants.

    That MEP assistants often had no work contracts, no insurance, and were heavily underpaid according to Belgian law was widely seen as fact among assistants at least during the previous mandate, and also that this happened less often in the Socialist, Green and Liberal groups and among MEPs from north-western Europe (I’m afraid British Tories had a bad name too). So if I am surprised it is not about the contents of this report, but about the fact that it came so late and that the media never discovered it earlier. And yes, I would like to see the figures published, but I don’t think misuse of funds is so uncommon that it will turn out to be a storm in a tea cup.

    That said, even under the previous system there were rules: E.g. MEPs had to show a work contract in order to receive funds for the assistant, and Belgian labour law applies for anyone (including MEP assistants) working at least half of his working time in Belgium. The EP just did not bother to check whether even these limited rules were properly applied.

  4. Oh sorry, the members statute enters into force only in 2009. But still the main problem is the lacking of a statute for assistants.

  5. IMHO, it is the perfect timing to pressure the EP political groups to bring transparency and accountability in their next manifesto. After all, the Tories are not going to give a seat to Conway in the next general elections. In the same way, EP political groups should adopt the same level of accountability and transparency that MPs are subjected within the House of Commons.

  6. “The perennial eurosceptic claims that the EU is riddled with corruption are, I hope, an exaggeration (after all, the lack of sign-off on the EU budget year after year is always due to irregularities on the part of the individual member states, not the EU itself).”

    Um… No. The majority of it is, yes. However, the EU has not adopted a slew of sensible accounting methods which would make their accounting more accurate and secure, e.g. double-entry book-keeping.

    There was someone who raised these issues, you know. Her name was Marta Andreason and she was suspended (by Kinnock, who was supposedly leading the Commission’s anti-fraud drive at the time) and then, eventually, sacked.

    But then you knew all that…

    DK

  7. I’ve been getting Private Eye every fortnight for the last 15 years or so – it would have been hard to miss her – and she certainly raised some valid points. However, identifying shoddy record-keeping that is vulnerable to fraud is not the same as identifying fraud itself – a point often missed by people looking for sticks to beat the EU with.

    As far as I’m concerned, the real disgrace here was not her findings (many of which have been and are being acted on, with several accounting reforms having come into place since 2003), but the way she was treated after submitting them.

    The way she’s acted in the last few years, however, now means she’s too tainted with partisan politics for me to take any more recent claims overly seriously. I mean, hooking up with UKIP? Hardly the way to maintain the moral high ground of the mistreated impartial accountant only trying to do what’s best, is it?

    (On a semi-related note, that Wikipedia article you link to is one of the most subjective I’ve seen in an age. I’d suggest this European Voice overview from 2002 as a better introduction for those not familiar with her.)