What is happening in the European Union, the European Commission and the European Council? What are their aims and ambitions, and where does the EU money go to? Read more
What is happening in the European Union, the European Commission and the European Council? What are their aims and ambitions, and where does the EU money go to?
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Members of the European Parliament repeatedly vote for more transparency and accountability of the GEA. © European Paliament
Most MEPs voting for transparency don’t publish office expenses
Members of the European Parliament receive a monthly allowance of 4778 euros for office expenditure, but there is no supervision on how they spend this money. Since 2019, MEPs can use the Parliament’s website to publicly declare that they have spent their taxpayers’ money legitimately. Less than 4 percent of the 705 MEPs made use of that opportunity.
Members of the European Parliament receive 4778 euros per month for office expenses. This general expenditure allowance (GEA) is paid in addition to their salaries, travel expenses and subsistence allowances (such as hotels and meals).
According to the Parliament’s website, MEPs can use the general expenditure allowance for expenses ‘such as office rental and management costs, internet subscriptions, computers and telephones, the organisation of conferences and exhibitions’.
But if someone were to use that money to buy a new car or go on holiday, nobody would be the wiser. There is hardly any supervision on how MEPs spend their general expenditure allowance; they do not have to keep receipts, and Parliament’s civil service does not conduct any audits.
On 7 April, a majority of Parliament approved the estimates for next year’s revenue and expenditure. The GEA budget will increase significantly from the 39.6 million euros for this year to 43.1 million euros for 2023.
An appeal for more transparency
MEPs themselves have often asked for more transparency and accountability on how they spend the GEA money. The ‘Bureau’, a group of MEPs responsible for all sorts of internal matters, would be responsible for arranging this.
In the resolution on the estimates dated 7 April, MEPs again appealed to the Bureau to make this happen. A comfortable majority (337 votes in favour, 119 against and 38 abstentions) asked the Bureau ‘to take the necessary decisions to increase transparency and accountability’ of the GEA.
But an important measure that MEPs can already take to increase transparency is hardly being observed at all, as an investigation by Follow the Money shows.
Since the ninth parliamentary term began following the May 2019 elections, MEPs can publicly declare that they have spent their monthly allowances appropriately on Parliament’s website. This declaration (or audit) can be submitted to Parliament, which will then publish it on the MEP’s personal profile page on Parliament’s website.
Shortly before the vote on 7 April, Follow the Money used a web scraper to determine which profile pages contained a GEA declaration. Only 26 out of 705 MEPs had submitted one.
Of the 337 MEPs who voted for more transparency and accountability on 7 April, only one had published such a declaration: the Danish Morten Petersen, a Member of the liberal Renew Europe political group. One other member of Renew Europe had also submitted a declaration: Karen Melchior, also Danish.
Just one MEP who voted in favour of greater transparency is transparent
Most of the MEPs who submitted a declaration are Members of the Green group. Although this group is in favour of more transparency, it voted against the resolution as a whole, because it considered that the estimated overall budget for 2023 ‘was simply too high for us to be able to support it’.
But even within the Green group, the Members who published a GEA declaration are in the minority: 24 published and 47 did not. A spokesperson for Green Members is unable to explain why the majority did not do so. There is no clear national distinction either: seven MEPs from the German Green group submitted a declaration, while fourteen others from the same party did not. The Danish and French Green groups are similarly arbitrary.
Among the other political factions – the European People’s Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Identity and Democracy (ID), the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), and The Left in the European Parliament – no one had made use as of yet of the option to submit a declaration, even though this has been possible since mid-2019.
Members of the Green party are the most transparent about their GEA expenditures
After Follow the Money presented the results to the political groups, one MEP has stepped up: Finland’s Silvia Modig of The Left group has since also submitted a declaration and raised the total to 27 out of 705.
‘At the end of the day, it is an individual decision, not a Group one as the entitlements are individual,' says a spokesperson for the EPP, the largest group.
‘ECR MEPs fully comply with the current rules,’ says a spokesperson for the conservative group. ‘Nevertheless, they support a further increase in transparency and accountability.’
Some Green and The Left MEPs use their personal or party websites rather than the Parliament’s official site. The Green group have their own policy that requires MEPs to publish an overview of their spending if anyone asks them to. But the political group does not oblige its Members to use Parliament’s website for that purpose.
´MEPs are free to make a declaration or not, and they can make the information public by other means if they decide so,' says a spokesperson for the European Parliament.
After questions by Follow the Money, a spokesperson for The Left group (39 Members) discovered ‘that many MEPs were not aware of the possibility to upload a voluntary audit to their profiles on the Parliament’s website’. According to him, several delegations have said they will do so now. The spokesperson also pointed out that many of the MEPs were newly elected.
However, all new MEPs were informed about the possibility of uploading an audit or declaration of expenses in their ‘welcoming package’. And meanwhile, we are already halfway through the current parliamentary term.
Moreover, MEPs have repeatedly asked to be reminded of the possibility of publishing an audit. On 14 May 2020, a majority of MEPs stated in a resolution that they were satisfied that they could now publish a declaration. They also called on the Parliament to ‘improve its communication towards members about this possibility and how to use it in practice’. A year later, Parliament adopted a resolution in which it ‘calls on Parliament’s services to remind Members of this possibility annually’.
It is unclear why MEPs were able to ask Parliament’s administration to send them a reminder about the option to submit a declaration but subsequently – almost en masse – neglected to make use of the option.
A spokesperson for the European Parliament says that ‘it is not possible to provide a full list of when Parliament reminded [MEPs of] this possibility’. She added that the Parliament secretariat ‘advises MEPs on ethics and transparency issues bilaterally and informally on a daily basis’.
A separate bank account, but no receipts
Stricter conditions on the use of the expense allowance will have to come from the Bureau. It consists of the President of the European Parliament and the 14 Vice-Presidents.
In 2018, the Bureau decided that MEPs should have a separate bank account for receiving their expense allowances; they were no longer allowed to use the account into which their salaries are paid. A majority in Parliament made the request. The representatives of the people also wanted receipts to be kept and for GEA money not spent by the end of the term to be returned to Parliament. The Bureau ignored these last two wishes.
An internal document dated 5 April 2022 that Follow the Money was able to review shows that the Bureau has set up a workgroup to evaluate the 2018 decision. That evaluation must be completed by November and will be accompanied by ‘recommendations and/or proposals where appropriate’.
It remains to be seen just how revolutionary those recommendations will be. The internal document contains a mandate that can be interpreted quite restrictively: ‘Any proposed changes to the current rules should avoid creating unnecessary administrative burdens for Members, their offices and Parliament’s services.’
Translation: Delia Burggraaf