Rent-Seeking in the European Parliament

Last Spring it emerged that many MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) were in the habit of claiming their €268 daily attendance allowance without actually spending the day in Brussels. One of my British colleagues was photographed signing the attendance register at 7.30 am, and then immediately going home to his constituency. The parliamentary authorities were quick to respond: journalists and photographers were barred from most of the building, allowing members to clock in in peace. The MEPs were quick to respond too. They quietly increased their other expenses.

Our secretarial allowance was raised by €2,000 a month. It now stands at €14,865 – enough to employ a genuine secretary, and a researcher too, and still have over €100,000 a year left over for your wife. I am embarrassed to say that the habit of hiring family members is especially widespread among British MEPs, almost all of whom have immediate relatives on their payroll. A French colleague once asked me: “What is it about you English? You employ your wives and you sleep with your staff”.

Until recently the MEPs had an extraordinary system of travel reimbursement. They were paid the equivalent of a full fare, plus an additional mileage allowance, whatever the actual cost of the ticket. If you were prepared to use low budget airlines, you could easily trouser another €1,000 a week – tax free, of course, because it counted as expenses rather than income. This scam was replaced last Spring by the reimbursement of travel at cost. Well, alright, not exactly at cost: there will still be a top-up based on distance, and another based on the time spent travelling. This comes on top of the so-called “general expenses” allowance, recently raised to €3,785 a month. This is notionally to pay for petrol, postage and the like, but is never audited, and is often paid directly into members’ current accounts – again, tax-free. All these allowances are in addition to our formal salaries.

Speaking of our salary, earlier this year the majority of MEPs voted for a substantial cut in their incomes. Under the Members’ Statute, MEPs will no longer be paid at the same rate as a national parliamentarian in our home country. Instead, we shall get 38.5 per cent of the salary of a Judge at the European Court – an apt comment, by the way, on the declining power of legislatures vis-à-vis judiciaries, but that’s another story. For some MEPs, notably those from the accession countries, the loss of the old travel scam will be more than offset by a tenfold rise in their wages. A friend from Eastern Europe told me recently that he expected to be offered his foreign ministry, but could not now afford to leave the European Parliament. For German colleagues, though, the package represents a double loss: a lower basic wage and fewer dodgy expenses.

Attention has now switched to how to compensate us for our impending loss. Without the travel scam, few MEPs will want to come to Strasbourg, and the quorum needed to pass legislation will not be met. Ordinary citizens may regard a decline in the volume of EU legislation with equanimity, but the prospect fills Eurocrats with horror. One idea gaining ground is substantially to increase the daily attendance allowance, a reform that the Parliament could enact without the approval of the member states.

What strikes me most, listening to all these plans, is the blatancy. Until recently, MEPs used to speak, with apparent sincerity, about doing the will of their constituents. But, since the French and Dutch “No” votes, no one believes this any more. Suddenly, we see the system for what it always was: a racket, whose chief purpose is to look after the people who work for it.

Why am I telling you this? It certainly won’t make me any friends. When I wrote about our income once before a German MEP told me that I had “failed to show solidarity to colleagues” – an interesting statement, carrying, as it did, the implication that we politicians ought to stick together against the uninformed canaille. But that, when you think about it, is the basis of much of what happens in the EU. Have the French voted “No”? They must have misunderstood the question. The Dutch, too? To hell with them.

I am reminded, in some ways, of the late era Soviet bloc. By the end, none of the Comecon leaders still believed – if ever they had – in the principles of Marxism-Leninism. But there were plenty of people who understood that their own positions depended on the maintenance of the ruling ideology. So it is in Brussels, where a nervous apparat keeps mouthing the tired slogans of closer integration, not out of conviction, but because, in truth, they do not know what else to do.

But I feel that, before we hand substantial new competences to Brussels, we ought to stop and look at how it is exercising the powers it already has. Such questions are rarely asked because the EU enjoys that most precious of political commodities, the benefit of the doubt. The fact that it is meant to embody the ideal of peace among nations makes people reluctant to look too hard at how it operates in practice. Carping about corruption seems petty-minded next to the rhetoric in the Treaties about ending war and spreading human rights. The trouble is that, rather as has happened at the United Nations, this attitude has encouraged a level of malpractice that we would never tolerate in an elected national government.

The exception is Britain, where the EU has never enjoyed the benefit of the doubt, and consequently is exposed to the same media scrutiny as any other organisation. Eurocrats, who are unaccustomed to criticism, go purple with anger when they talk about the British tabloids, which they accuse of printing a series of lies in order to discredit the European project.

There is, if I am honest, some justification for their anger. From time to time, British papers do indeed publish one-sided stories about Brussels. But the converse point is never made, namely that the EU is treated with extraordinary deference by most Continental newspapers. This, in the long-run, has been more damaging to it than the hostility of the British tabloids, since it has fostered an attitude of complacent self-righteousness in Brussels.