Signing on in Brussels

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July 8, 2008 18:37 | by Erik Meijer MEP

July 2nd, 2008 - Members of the European Parliament were brought into discredit in a programme broadcast recently on German TV. The short documentary film dealing with the behaviour of Euro-MPs when it comes to their expenses is now circulating via the Internet. Euro-MP Erik Meijer of the United European Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), the political group made up of all of the genuinely left parties in the European Parliament, was asked to comment. Meijer represents the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), a true socialist party which in 2006 trebled its representation at national, regional and local level, hammering the centre-left Labour and Green Left parties. The SP's success came on the back of theparty's leadership of the triumphant 'No' campaign against the European Constitution.

The video in question shows MEPs signing the Strasbourg attendance register early in the morning and then later - but not much later - leaving the building, suitcase in hand, on their way homeward or, in any case, elsewhere. In this way, they are able to access the daily expenses intended for those who stay in Strasbourg and continue to work. (a British Tory MEP long ago dubbed this the 'SOSO' system - 'Sign On and Sod Off'.) When they were asked by the broadcaster why they left, they dodged the question. One even put a hand to the camera's lens. It must be impossible for a broadcaster to imagine better TV than that, a journalist's revelations blacked out! Permission to film inside the European Parliament building was withdrawn there and then and the camera crew forcibly escorted from the premises. But what was not mentioned was that the whole thing happened several years ago.

Old news

SP Euro-MP Erik Meijer's first reaction was to dismiss the whole things as old news. "These were pictures which had been recorded in 2003 or 2004. However, the abuse which they made public is still going on. The SP has for many years demanded that an end be put to the laughable payments made to Euro-MPs. Those elected as SP candidates distance themselves from this, by for example returning any unspent surplus of our travel expenses.

"From 1999 to 2004 I returned more than €50,000 to the Parliament. The SP's Euro-MPs receive a monthly salary of roughly €2,300, a sum on which you can live well enough. The rest of our actual salary we hand over to the party, which helps, for example, to finance the SP's activism, and such operations as the broadcast of our recent short film on home helps."

The ins and outs

Members of the European Parliament receive various forms of income:

1..A fixed monthly salary from their own national Foreign Ministry, equivalent to that of a Member of their own national parliament, which therefore means that the biggest differences between MEPs result from differences in the salaries paid to their national MPs. These are very wide indeed, the lowest paid receiving €500 p.m. and the highest €11,000. Hungarians are amongst the lowest paid, Italians the highest.

2..In addition, all MEPs receive three kinds of repayment of expenses:

1. General costs ( a fixed sum, equal for all MEPs)

2. Travel expenses (depending on the number of kilometres travelled. Finns, for example, must generally travel a lot further than Dutch members.)

3. A daily allowance (which depends on the number of days a member signs the attendance book).



The daily allowance

Officially this money is designed to cover living expenses, such as the renting of a second home in Brussels, hotel rooms in Strasbourg and hotel costs for meetings in other places. In practice, the 'reimbursement' amounts to more than the actual costs. Most MEPs pocket the difference, but this does not happen in the SP.

It is this daily allowance which is discussed in the RTL documentary. Every working day that a MEP is present in Brussels or Strasbourg, or when the Member participates in a Parliamentary Committee meeting or foreign delegation in another country, he or she can also sign this attendance register. For each day that you are signed in you receive €287.

The attendance register for daily allowances is available to be signed each day in a certain room in the European Parliament building in Brussels or Strasbourg. As a result of earlier 'camera incidents', no-one is allowed to look at this book. It has, however, been agree that a daily allowance will only be paid for a Friday if the Member in question has also signed in for the Thursday before it, and that if the Parliament is closed for a public holiday, and during the week between Christmas and New Year, as well as in the first three weeks of August, the attendance list cannot be signed.

The current situation

In addition to this list, there is also a list of presence covering the plenary sessions, when in principle all Members should be in attendance. This list of those present is included in the minutes so that everyone can see which MEPs turn up and which don't.

Until 2002 the Parliament's Strasbourg plenaries stretched into Friday. During the 1997-1998 parliamentary session it was discovered that many MEPs were in the habit of arriving at around 9 o'clock on the Friday morning, signing the register and then immediately leaving the building, most likely to shoot off home. This led at the time to a scandal, all the more because the Parliament's Praesidium had decided to move the register from the entrance hall into the meeting room itself, where neither journalists nor other visitors could see who had signed the list.

In 2002, on a proposal from the SP and others, it was decided that the poorly-attended Friday session, at which for the most part only 10% of the Members were present, would be done away with. Since then the only attendance list which can be signed on Friday is the general list described above, as on any other working day.

Abuse

In 2003 Hans Peter Martin, who in 1999 had been Number 1 on the list of the Austrian social democrats, declared that signing in for the daily allowance in Strasbourg on Fridays was an abuse. In support of his re-election campaign as an independent, he had placed a camera crew in the room where the register was and, as a consequence, plunged into scandal all of those who arrived with their luggage at around 9 o'clock, signed, and then immediately set off home. The pictures which are now being distributed via the Internet come from this period. Martin was thrown out of the social democratic group, the so-called Party of European Socialists.

Hated

Since his actions in 2003, Hans Peter Martin has been hated by almost all Euro-MPs, because he had accused everyone of being a cheat. One of the few still speaking to him is Erik Meijer, even though Meijer does not completely agree with him about what constitutes cheating and what does not. Where precisely do they disagree? Martin's view is that now there is no plenary session on Friday, attendance allowances should no longer be paid for this day. But as Meijer points out, "I sign the list on Friday, but only if I intend to stay in Strasbourg to work, and I never do this any earlier than around noon. Until recently you could check this for yourself. I was one of the last, and you could see that from the number which appeared before my signature. But this too has now changed. About a year ago it was decided that the list of names would be arranged in alphabetical order. In any case, these lists were never made available to the public. Even Members could see only the last ten signatures. The rest were removed."

Whit Monday

"An exceptional case was Whit Monday , I think it was in 2001," Meijer recalls. "Following protests from Dutch Members the plenary session was delayed, because this is an important holiday in the Netherlands. Despite this, it turned out that the daily allowance list could be signed. I tried at the time to check which Dutch Members had signed, without signing it myself, but I was not allowed to peruse the register and was sent away. As long as the system is maintained under which there is an attendance list for every working say, I will sign the list when, and only when, I am present and working."

New in 2009

After the next elections, from July 2009, every MEP from whatever country will receive an equal salary, higher than that for national MPs in the case of the Netherlands, but lower than that of the Members from the big member states. From then on, a MEP will be liable, just as is the case now for officials of the EU, to pay a special EU income tax which is much lower than that of the Netherlands. The SP has persistently - and in this it has stood alone amongst Dutch political parties - argued that Dutch MEPs should pay the difference between the EU tax and our own national tax to the Dutch state. "At the end of June, 2008, during a meeting with Guusje Ter Horst, Minister of Internal Affairs, I heard that she is prepared to put forward a legislative proposal under which Dutch Euro-MPs should pay Dutch taxes, and that they should continue doing so after 2009," says Meijer. "In addition to the SP, the PvdA (Labour Party) has promised to support this proposal. Other political groups are arguing in favour of the EU tax."

Paying Up

"My salary goes into the SP's funds. I then receive €2,300 per month," says Meijer. "As for my expenses, anything left over from my housing and hotel costs is also paid to the SP. I pay a monthly surplus of € 1,500 euro to the SP. When it comes to travel expenses, the reimbursement rate is a bit higher than the actual cost of my train tickets. Until 1999, when I was first elected, all Dutch MEPs could pocket the difference. In 1999 and again in 2004 it was agreed that all of us would pay it back to the EP. Starting in July 2009, only the actual costs will be reimbursed. The SP's MEPs here in Brussels are well-known as people who pay a great deal back, but there are others who pay little or nothing back, for example because they like to travel in luxury."

Erik Meijer was talking to a Socialist Party journalist.