Last week the radical left and EU-critical Dutch Socialist Party used its single seat in the European Parliament to propose that Members of the European Union’s only elected body show solidarity with millions of suffering people in the twenty-seven member states by making some modest cuts in the institution’s budget. In his speech proposing the cuts, Dennis de Jong made the point that ”throughout Europe we’re seeing spending cuts, except for within the European Parliament itself.” His modest proposal was, he said, to take “a firmer grip on MEPs’ spending and put a stop to double reimbursements.”
That’s right, double reimbursements. Roughly once a month, the Parliament decamps from Brussels to Strasbourg for its plenary meeting. This isn’t because they don’t have a space big enough to fit them all inside in their usual working base, an externally ugly but internally quite well-designed building in Brussels. It’s simply because the French imagine that having the EP meet in La Belle République somehow confers prestige. A strange idea perhaps, but there you go. Perhaps more practically, they are concerned to preserve the jobs of hotel staff, restaurateurs, bar owners, prostitutes and others who gain a valuable monthly boost to their earnings from the arrival of hundreds of free-spending politicians and their well-paid staff.
Many members of that well-paid staff are as concerned as the French at the possible loss of the Strasbourg seat, as they make a handsome profit on each trip. Even though staff daily allowances are lower than those of MEPs – an odd idea, as their metabolic needs are on average identical – you can make quite a packet by staying in a cheap hotel, or even sleeping in your vehicle. Plenary weeks are notable for the lines of camper cars parked within walking distance of the Parliament’s grotesque complex in the banks of the Rhine.
The double reimbursements apply, in general, only to the Members themselves, who can claim not only the first class fare from home (whether they use first class or not), but also a ‘distance allowance’ on top of their usual allowance of €304 (roughly £250/$400) for any day on which there are meetings . They don’t have to show up at these meetings, by the way, at least no longer than it takes to sign in. Years ago a Tory MEP gave this system a most appropriate name – the SOSO system: ‘Sign On and Sod Off’. To be fair, the MEPs have voted to reduce the number of Strasbourg session, and many would like to see them abolished, but one of the many powers the European Parliament lacks is to decide for itself where it meets and when.
In addition to all of this moolah MEPs receive, on top of their salaries of almost €8,000 p.m. They also get a separate travel allowance for journeys other than those to Brussels and Strasbourg, which is subject to an annual maximum of €4,243. Oh, and then there’s the allowance for ‘general costs’ of €4299 per month which, De Jong says ‘is subject to virtually no monitoring,’ something which he finds ‘impossible to explain to the taxpayer’.
I have to come clean. I was, until 2005, a potential recipient of some of this gravy. I was paid a tax-free salary of €3,000 per month, and for two years after resigning continued to receive 60% of this figure. Like almost everyone who represents or works for the left – I mean the real left, not Labour and their ilk – I handed over a big slice of this to my party, which happened to be the same as Dennis de Jong’s. Dennis and I both followed what the Dutch SP call the ‘subtraction rule’, which is designed to leave you with a salary equivalent to that of an averagely-paid skilled worker in the Netherlands.
The SP thus profits from the system, but it prefers to do so as little as possible, and De Jong hands back all of his unused allowances each year, something which he is under no obligation to do. The problem is that while many MEPs line their own nests from these generous payments, those who are too honest to do so – and they are a large minority, most but by no means all on the left – enrich their parties with them proceeds. More honourable, certainly, but just as expensive. After discussing it with the SP, I therefore refused to claim any of the many allowances to which I was entitled, other than straight reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses. These allowances included a ‘settling in’ allowance which I could easily, and without cheating, have arranged to receive by spending a few weeks back in the UK, despite the fact that I’d lived in Brussels for many years, working as a political assistant to a British MEP before joining a political group’s staff, and thereby officially becoming an employee of the Parliament itself.
Even though I didn’t claim these allowances and handed over part of my salary to my party, I lived quite well in Brussels on the €1,800 p.m. left to me. Brussels is a remarkably inexpensive city, at least if you live amongst other, less privileged, immigrants. Also, the cherry on the cake at the Parliament is the very cheap staff restaurant!
And what do we member state taxpayers get for these enormous payments? Not democracy, that’s for sure. Even national governments have less power now than do the unelected decision-makers of the European Central Bank and European Commission. National parliaments have become, in most EU member states, little more than talking shops, while those that retain some power to perform their task of representing those who elect them see that power placed under ever-narrower constraints. The European Parliament’s powers are extensive over a very few areas of policy – the environment, for example – and it is towards these which the bloated and aggressive corporate lobby directs its attention.
In relation to core policy issues involving economic decision-making, workers’ rights, trade and development, however, it has no power whatsoever.
They did have power over one economic issue, however. None of Dennis de Jong’s proposed cuts was adopted.