On Monday, the European Parliament’s “Bureau” rejected proposals to tighten the rules around MEPs’ expenses. With the so-called General Expenditure Allowance (GEA) each MEP gets an eyewatering €4,416 a month, ostensibly to cover their running costs.
The money is meant to be used to rent a constituency office as well as for “office management costs, telephone and postal charges, and the purchase, operation and maintenance of computer and telematics equipment”. However, an investigation last year by a consortium of investigative journalists called “The MEPs Project” discovered widespread abuses of the system, with ghost offices, rent payments funneled to national political parties or even MEPs’ personal accounts.
To make matters worse, EP President Antonio Tajani and his colleagues in the EP’s Bureau voted against making it mandatory for MEPs to keep receipts of their expenditures. They also rejected audits of how MEPs spend their allowances or making audit reports public. They even rejected the mandatory return of any unspent funds at the end of an MEP’s mandate. The only measure they did approve was requiring MEPs to keep a separate bank account for their expenses payments.
In the past, the European Court of Justice forced the European Parliament to release a secret internal audit report that exposed the widespread abuse of expenses by MEPs. The ECJ decided the EP could not claim potential political controversy as a reason to keep it secret.
Without mentioning any names, it reveals that MEPs have channelled their £125,000-a-year allowances for secretaries and research assistants into family-owned businesses, foreign bank accounts and “front” companies. It notes that there are systematic abuses of parliamentary allowances, including payments made to assistants of MEPs who were not even accredited to work in the Parliament. Back then, when the salary system was different, there would also have been end-of-year bonuses worth nearly 20 times the monthly salary paid to assistants, just so MEPs could use up their full annual allowance.
Europe certainly isn’t going to be bankrupted as a result of all this, but many people believe the Parliament has a role as an effective check on the EU machine. This kind of behaviour, supported over the years by the highest echelons of the European Parliament, should serve as yet more proof that MEPs are not fit to scrutinise the rest of Brussels.
It may originally not have been a bad idea once to create a directly elected assembly to examine the influential regulatory and budgetary decisions of the powerful European Commission and the Member States. In practice, however, we must conclude that the EP is not doing its job.
Importantly, the European Parliament has not once refused to sign off the EU’s budget, despite the serious criticism issued every single year until 2017 by the EU’s own accounting body, and the the fact that member states such as Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden voted against discharging the EU budget. The very least one would expect would be for MEPs to refuse to sign off the budget until the EU’s own auditor declares it “free from material error.”
On the contrary, the European Parliament has shown an almost obsessive appetite for higher EU spending, seemingly with no regard for the interests of taxpayers. And there’s no regulation too mad for MEPs –the Parliament has endorsed the “precautionary principle”, a hazard-based approach which some argue might previously have prevented drugs such as aspirin reaching European consumers.
And that’s before we mention the ridiculous spectacle of moving the Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg once a month, the ludicrously high salaries for MEPs or the many other scandals the European Parliament has been embroiled in over the years. In its ruling on the Lisbon Treaty, the German Constitutional Court said that the EP was “not sufficiently fit” to take “representative decisions on the basis of majority”, at least as long as there was “no uniform European demos” – a condition that looks unlikely to be satisfied any time soon.
There are other problems with scurtiny, of course. For governments, it’s tempting to agree unpopular regulations in Brussels and then send legislation back home as an “EU regulation” to avoid the scrutiny of their own domestic parliaments. Either way, member states need to be strengthened in the EU legislative process, perhaps replacing the ineffective “yellow card” with a “red card” veto for national parliaments.
With all this in mind, we should really ask ourselves what purpose the European Parliament now serves.We don’t have to get rid of the EU, and the framework for free trade it still provides, to do away with the European Parliament and let MEPs indulge themselves at their own expense, rather than ours.