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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A very leaky defence

On the Guardian's Comment is Free site, Dermot Scott, the Head of UK Office at the European Parliament, has today responded to an article from our Research Director Mats Persson on the MEP expenses scandal. He argues that Mats' article and the recent media coverage (see here, here and here) of MEPs' expenses is "opportunistic" and "unfair", describing much of it as "inaccurate or tendentious."

His article warrants a response on several counts.

Firstly, think about this for a moment. Where else in the world would a civil servant - in this case a parliament staffer - feel it his or her place to criticise civil society for trying to hold elected representatives and 'democratic' institutions to account? It strikes us as extremely strange - can MEPs not defend themselves?

Imagine an information officer at the UK Parliament penning an op-ed to criticise the Daily Telegraph for its work on MPs' expenses? Or, imagine the same information officer having the nerve to actually defend the system.

That would be unthinkable in the UK and in any other normal, functioning democracy. But apparently, EU 'communications' officers see it within their mandate to engage in highly-charged political discussions. (This isn't the first time we've had a pop at them for that - see here and here)

The question is, on what mandate does an EU information officer act as 'politician', even to the extent of brushing aside concerns over the widespread abuse of taxpayers' money?

But onto the article itself. It describes the recent focus on MEPs' expenses and allowances as "opportunistic." Of course the recent Westminster expenses scandal has certainly roused people's interest in this subject, but to suggest that we have simply jumped on some kind of 'expenses bandwagon' is just silly.

As many MEPs are well aware (and don't appreciate!), for several years now we've been busy campaigning for a more open and transparent expenses system in the EP. Back in May 2008 for instance, we published the results of our 'Transparency Initiative' aimed at opening up some of the opaque practices surrounding MEPs' expenses, asking MEPs whether their accounts were properly audited and how they spent their staff allowances.

Dermot's article also argues that "while the European parliament may still not be perfect, it is only fair to point out that long-awaited reform is at hand". Here, our friend the EP information officer gets completely lost.

In his breakdown of MEPs' salaries and pensions he notes that "Pension rights are the same as for a Westminster MP." Under the old system this is true, but under the new 'long-awaited' reformed system, which will come into force after Thursday's elections, UK MEPs will get access to an infinitely more lucrative pension scheme.

Consider this: Whereas MEPs used to have to contribute 100% of their salary over ten years in order to receive an annual pension of £15,822, under the new rules, they don't have to contribute anything at all and can expect to receive an annual pension of £27,954 because of more generous accrual rates. But Dermot obviously forgot to mention this.

He then moves on to criticise Open Europe's recent league table of MEPs and the criteria we used to compile it. He asks, "why does voting in favour of the Lisbon Treaty mean you're against transparency?"

Well...

A) Our league table was not only concerned with transparency, but also ‘openness and democracy’ and ‘fighting waste and misuse of EU funds’ - which both our press release and our guide to the league table made perfectly clear

B) We did not in fact include the vote in favour of the Lisbon Treaty but a specific amendment which called on MEPs to “undertake to respect the outcome of the referendum in Ireland” before it had actually taken place.

This is completely different to the vote in favour or against the Lisbon Treaty. It's far worse. The proposed amendment was a goodwill gesture towards the Irish people as they prepared to vote on the Lisbon Treaty, but, shockingly, 64% of MEPs voted against it (including 13 out of 78 British MEPs), Only 16% voted in favour of respecting the will of the Irish people.

These glaring errors leave us wondering whether Dermot bothered to read our guide to the league table before he leapt to the defence of democratically elected politicians, who can surely stand up for themselves? He also clearly forgot that he's a civil servant (meaning, not a politican) paid by taxpayers to provide accurate and factual information.

As a parting shot, he adds "the ranking also has some absurdities that would be laughable if they were not serious, for example giving a high ranking to an MEP who has been investigated by Olaf and was obliged by the European parliament to repay a considerable sum."

Ironically, MEPs voted earlier this year to keep documents related to their own expenses and financial disciplinary measures secret and out of public view. This vote was also one of the criteria we used in our ranking. If it wasn't for this vote it would have been possible for the public - i.e us - to identify MEPs caught misuing public money. Hilarious eh.

Most of all, Dermot's article demonstrates that any attempt to shed light on the practices and processes at work in EU institutions is immediately construed from those within them as an attack on their very existence. Such outbursts simply serve to remind the public how far removed the European Parliament is from real world politics.

Clearly Dermot and no doubt the wider EU establishment would much prefer if us mere members of the public did not take an interest in the nitty gritty of how MEPs actually vote on our behalf - despite the non-stop complaints from everyone there that 'no-one understands or cares about what we actually do'.

Expect much more of this bleeting next week when the EP elections are over and the institutions are looking for people to blame for either low turnout or bolstered fringe parties. You can't say we didn't try.

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