Yet another in a long line of scandals has hit the European Parliament. This time it is allegations that three MEPs agreed to receive payments for submitting amendments to legislation. The anti-European press have had a field day and for once their outrage is justified.
I can imagine the feelings of most MEPs who despite working hard find themselves once again mired in controversy. Indeed, one of the reasons I left the Parliament was because I despaired of working long hours on complex issues, only for people to assume I was on the fiddle. The press only seemed to want to talk to me about MEPs expenses and not about my work.
Ultimately, though, the Parliament only has itself to blame for never really getting to grips with its own activities. Partly, this was for historical reasons. The original six member states were relatively wealthy and their national MPs enjoyed reasonable pay and generous expenses. Crucially, Members of Parliament in these countries enjoyed a general immunity from prosecution. This was the natural consequence of the pre-war abuses when totalitarian governments threw their opponents into prison on the flimsiest of excuses. Unfortunately, the immunity also bred in some the belief that politicians were above scrutiny on such mundane matters as how they use their expenses. As an MEP, I often found continental colleagues were horrified at the thought of close scrutiny of their expenses, not because of any wrong doing, but simply because they believed it beneath the dignity of an elected member.
That culture was brought into the European Parliament when it was formed. MEPs then were also national MPs and expected the same treatment in Brussels as in their own countries. The directly elected Parliament simply kept the same system. So it was that at one time significant sums of money were handed over with only minimum controls – a recipe for abuse by some.
One of the oddities of the European Parliament was that MEPs were paid the same as their national counterparts, resulting in enormous variations in salaries. These differences were increased with the accession of poorer countries. Consequently, there grew up an unspoken and unacknowledged assumption that travel expenses, in particular, could be used to subsidise income. This was helped by the fact that members from these countries generally had the furthest to travel and so received the biggest allowance.
Over the years, as a result of internal and external pressure, these dubious practices have been stopped. All MEPs have been paid the same salary since 2009, travel is funded at cost and the money allocated for MEPs to employ staff is strictly controlled. There is still, though, a weakness in the way money is provided for MEPs to do their job in their member country, including for the establishment and running of offices. There is little accountability of this money which is why in 2000 Labour MEPs voluntarily agreed to submit their accounts to independent accountants for scrutiny to ensure that money was used properly. Subsequently, the Conservative and Liberal Parties have followed suit. Getting some other nationalities to adopt this system has proved impossible as their politicians often believe that such scrutiny inherently calls into question their probity.
The EP has often justified its inaction in this area on the grounds that MEPs come from such widely different political cultures that agreement on a single system was impossible. That will no longer wash. Now there is a common salary, there should be a common structure of accountability for all members. Furthermore, all MEPs should realise that modern society expects people who receive public money, to be fully accountable for it.
The public expects politicians to behave in an honourable way. The difficulty has always been agreeing what that actually means. Although the EP now has plenty of rules, it lacks a unified vision of how politicians should act. MEPs, who doubt how to respond to a particular situation, have no one or nowhere to turn to for guidance. That is why the proposed establishment of an independent Ethics and Standards Committee currently being considered should be supported. It will not be easy to agree. I proposed such an arrangement early in the last Parliament to the then President and other senior figures only to be met with incomprehension as to why such a thing was necessary.
The European Parliament must realise that every time there is a scandal, it is another nail in the coffin of the EU, which is becoming indelibly associated in some people’s minds with corruption and waste. The EP must take greater responsibility for its own actions and not blame different cultures, the media or lobbyists for its woes. It must put its own house in order. Failure will completely undermine and discredit all the tremendous work that is being done in the Parliament.