The cost of excess for the European Parliament

, by David Neuwirth

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The cost of excess for the European Parliament

The bond of trust between public institutions and people is the basis of democracy. The trouble is that it is much easier to lose it than it is to gain. As the European parliament grows in size and increases its political authority, public trust is what it cannot go without. Yet worrying trends inhibit it.

Miloslav Ransdorf and Raffaell Baldassarre are both members of the European parliament (MEPs). Largely unknown until June 17, they took a lead role in the institution’s recent PR disaster as they got caught on camera collecting money for doing nothing – a practice commonly known as “sign in, slope off”. In its latest display, implied MEPs refused to run into a wall in a bid to avoid a tiresome reporter and instead assaulted him straight away. The case received some publicity since then, with the involved Dutch weblog filing a complaint with EP’s president Martin Schulz. Even so, no press release, no official statement, no reaction whatsoever followed.

A life of its own

The daily allowance both gentlemen have been after amounts to 304 euro. It is being granted without any proof of expenditure, on the basis of a simple registration at a meeting. With no requirement to actually attend a debate/committee session or even sign out before leaving, MEPs are invited to squander €304 a day – in exchange for a signature. And let’s not forget: a reasonable three-star hotel close to the EP’s building in Brussels will cost less than 125 euro bed/breakfast. That makes €162 a day for lunch and dinner in an environment where free meals organized by lobby groups and political parties are on everyday schedule. Not to mention subsidized restaurants.

Emerging institutions tend to acquire a life of their own, this was known already to the Romans. A problem arises when the pursuit of such life involves excessive costs, and MEPs’ income is a case in point. Since the new salaries and expenses system entered into force after the 2009 elections, MEPs earn 878% more than average EU citizens, as recent study found. With office allowances (which are only 50 % receipted) not included in this calculation, such standards are destined to trigger public outrage in a time when discontent with politicians already is pervasive.

What benefits for the costs?

Sure enough, MEPs’ work has become increasingly visible in a range of EU-wide issues. But as their powers grew, so did the potential for corruption. Cash-for-laws scandals that occurred two years ago are distinctive of this danger. A voluntary lobby register might just not be enough to eliminate doubts that costs and benefits are optimally balanced.

And doubts matter since the EP has an unsettled legitimacy. When MEPs end up leading a four-strong delegation to Buenos Aires with the cost of €105,182 for a five-day stay, it only reinforces the impression that MEPs do not serve their constituents the way they should. The public benefits of such trips are unclear. Same goes for non-binding resolutions (e.g. on the link between climate change and gender equality).

Even the multi-lingual diversity, a democratic feature in principle, comes at a cost. For one thing, debates tend to lack the cut and thrust. For another, the Parliament pays out over €15 million per year on translations for 24 languages and, worse still, in 2012 it spent €5.5 million in requested but unsused interpretation – according to its recent report. Not long ago, German president Joachim Gauck proposed English to be made the lingua franca, and one could imagine two more languages added. In any case, Europe does not build from scratch. The need for an official language runs through its history like a continuous thread reaching as far as to the Roman Empire and the medieval Catholic Church. In a time of economic hardship, the EP could have seized upon it.

But it did not, as it is not forced to tailor its activities to match fluctuant resources. The budget is fixed for years ahead. And the EP spends its money without any real external oversight. Combined with an understandable desire to write history, it then gets into projects such as the €52 million House of European History and the €21 million Parlamentarium, build just a couple of hundred meters away from each other.

Act. React. Impact.

Sadly, the one thing the EP wants to save on, it can’t. Obliged by the Treaties to divide its work between three workplaces, it generates €180 million a year of extra costs. The situation stays the same despite an overwhelming opposition of all MEPs. In the run-up to upcoming elections, the EP is thus dogged by image problems. To deserve the trust and commitment of Europe’s citizenry, it needs to show the will to overcome them.

Your comments

  • On 6 October 2013 at 22:20, by Charles_M Replying to: The cost of excess for the European Parliament

    the MEP’s need that €304/day to relax after all that monthly commuting to Strasbourg, which after all only costs us a few hundred million euros per year. And why whinge about a €52 million House of European History or a €21 million Parlamentarium? I’m sure the average EU citizen wouldn’t begrudge MEP’s or Commissioners their little whims.

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