MEPs rebuff transparency call and boost parliament budget

MEPs voting, 28 Apr 15 Image copyright AFP
Image caption MEPs vote in Strasbourg but do most of their work in Brussels

Euro MPs have voted to increase their allowances to cover staff costs while rejecting a move to subject their expenses to an obligatory audit.

The Parliamentary Assistance Allowance, currently €21,379 (£15,250; $23,460) per month, will rise to €22,879.

The European Parliament's 751 MEPs also raised the parliament's total budget to €1.84bn for 2016, from €1.75bn now.

Some MEPs want stricter monitoring of MEPs' expenses. But a report urging greater transparency was watered down.

The spending increases come despite many calls for the EU to rein in spending on its own administration - including strong calls from the UK Conservatives. The parliament's costs account for about 1% of the total EU budget.

The 2008 financial crisis forced national governments across Europe to cut administrative spending, and fuelled demands for the EU to do likewise.

Another EU institution, the European Court of Justice, has asked for 21 extra judges to be appointed. That would almost double the current total of 27. The change would cost an estimated €13.8m annually.

The ECJ says more judges are needed because of a "dramatic increase" in the court's caseload - from 398 in 2000 to 912 in 2014.

But some ECJ judges themselves oppose the proposal, calling it too expensive, the EUobserver website reports.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption French MEP Gilles Pargneaux is urging better controls over MEPs' expenses

Expenses controversy

On Wednesday MEPs approved a report by a French Socialist MEP, Gilles Pargneaux, including a clause saying the parliament "stresses the need for greater transparency as regards the general spending allowances for members".

They said parliament officials should establish "more precise rules" for MEPs' spending.

But an amendment removed a strong demand by Mr Pargneaux for more transparency concerning the General Expenditure Allowance (GEA), a €4,320 monthly payment to each MEP to cover office costs, such as rent and phone calls.

One of the two deleted clauses expressed astonishment that MEPs "do not have to account for the way they have used the allowance and that for members who wish to do so, verification of their accounts by the Internal Auditor of Parliament is not possible".

That clause had also called for "the introduction of obligatory annual reporting by the members of their expenditures paid out of the GEA, or, failing that, for at least opening a procedure for verification of the Members' accounts on a voluntary basis".

A former Dutch Labour Party MEP, Michiel van Hulten, told the BBC that the transparency call was "watered down in a compromise amendment by the largest political groups".

The website Votewatch Europe shows that 83% of MEPs backed the amended version of the report.

Mr van Hulten, now a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE), said the office allowance "is the main outstanding issue" concerning MEPs' expenses, as controls on other MEP allowances "have been tightened up".

"For example, with the travel allowance now you have to show tickets to get the sum reimbursed. It's a lot better than it was say 15 years ago," he said.

Some parties in the European Parliament already declare their office expenditure voluntarily, he noted.

But Wednesday's vote "sends a signal that MEPs are not ready for this kind of transparency", he complained.

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Media captionHow the European Parliament works

Rules 'unclear'

The total allocated to cover MEPs' staff expenditure next year is €202m, up €10m on 2015.

The parliament's total 2016 budget includes an extra €15m to beef up parliamentary security, including defences against cyber attack.

Gerard Deprez, a Belgian liberal MEP, steered the parliamentary budget report. He - like many other MEPs - argued that the parliament's workload had increased since 2009 as the Lisbon Treaty had given MEPs many more responsibilities.

But he called for a new rule to clarify the roles of MEPs' assistants in Brussels and those employed in MEPs' home nations.

The EU's anti-fraud agency Olaf is investigating the far-right National Front (FN) over its Paris-based assistants amid suspicions that the party misused EU funds.

Under the current system an MEP can have no assistants in Brussels but dozens of local assistants back home.

Mr Deprez also called for a rule to stop MEPs abusing the system of sending written questions to the European Commission. Some questions, he said, were motivated more by MEPs' desire to get noticed.

MEPs receive a monthly salary of €8,020, making a gross annual salary of €96,240, Green MEP Jean Lambert says on her website.

After EU tax the standard monthly salary is €6,250. British MEPs also pay UK tax and National Insurance contributions.

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