By Matthew Vella
Calculations by sister paper MaltaToday have shown that a Maltese MEP can count on a potential Lm40,000 yearly from the EU Parliament’s well-oiled system of privileges in which chauffeured cars, daily allowances, free healthcare, generous pensions, and a travel expense procedure that reimburses MEPs even up to 10 times as much as the amount of their airfare in some cases, are the norm.
Budgeted at nearly EUR100 million, European deputies’ benefits easily top those for members of any EU-member national parliament.
The first big money earner is the attendance allowance of EUR262 (Lm113), dubbed by London think-tank The Social Affairs Unit as the ‘sign-on and sod-off fee’. In order to claim this allowance, MEPs will have to sign on before 10pm on any of the 154 working days throughout 2005 for attending committee and group meetings and plenary sessions.
There is no need to speak in a debate, let alone stay.
Hans Peter Martin, an Austrian Socialist MEP until 1999, was expelled by leader Enrique Baron-Crespo for hunting down MEPs claiming their attendance allowance without making their meeting. He now sits in Parliament as a non-aligned MEP.
Walking through European Parliament corridors with a hidden camera, Martin compiled information on the parliamentary perk system with images of German politicians leaving Brussels and Strasbourg after signing in for their daily stipends.
Martin says hundreds of MEPs earn thousands extra a year in allowances for parliamentary sessions they do not attend.
The European Parliament is now planning to impose constraints on photographers and camera crews who work in its buildings in reaction to a stories that caught MEPs abusing the allowances system. Journalists who flout the proposed rules could be banned from the buildings for up to two years and have their film and tapes confiscated.
MEPs also get paid for the trouble of travelling itself, because MEPs not only get flights reimbursed – they receive an allowance for the distance travelled.
Added to a total of EUR40,348 (Lm17,413) in attendance allowances every year, every time Maltese MEPs make the trip to their seat of their office, they receive an additional EUR1,000 (Lm434) to just simply relax in their economy class seats.
Flights are refunded in the form of a flat-rate sum reflecting the cost of an unrestricted economy-class return air ticket, the distance from the point of departure to Brussels or Strasbourg and the cost of travel to and from the airport of departure.
Although this system will be replaced by one in which the expenses refunded will be those actually incurred once the draft Statute for Members enters into force, at present the flat rate paid for each return air trip between Valletta and Brussels is EUR1,542 – EUR522.50 for the plane ticket, EUR40 for travel to and from the airport and EUR475 for the distance component.
That means that every week, it is estimated that Maltese MEPs pocket an extra EUR1,000 (Lm434) just for covering the distance between Malta International Airport and Brussels, when they leave for work and return every week. With some 38 flights a year, travelling is really worth the hassle, because it will earn MEPs an approximate Lm16,492 in one year.
MEPs also have most of their expenses covered. When parliamentary leaders became concerned that new legislators from Eastern Europe would strain the free car service, the result was the EUR50 a week taxi subsidy.
On top of that, MEPs also get an extra EUR3,500 (Lm1,520) a year for other travel. Additionally, they are allocated EUR3,785 in office expenses every month; EUR12,546 every month for the employment of their staff; EUR5,000 a year for language lessons; and a yearly allocation of EUR35,000 for a seminar or conference organised by the MEP.
Some two-thirds of MEPs also pay EUR948 (Lm408) a month into a voluntary second pension scheme. The money is not deducted from their salaries but from an office allowance which is supposed to pay for items such as computers. MEPs are supposed to pay in the money back into their office fund, but with no audits on the way the allowance is spent, the system still depends on honesty.
According to the Financial Times, for every euro paid by deputies, the European Parliament matching the contribution at twice the amount.
A motion to allow random audits of MEP’s accounts and suspend those who broke the rules, supported by liberals and green MEPs, was tabled in the Budgetary Control committee but was defeated by 23 votes to seven. MEP Simon Busuttil is a member of the committee.
Depending on the length of service, retired MEPs will receive a minimum of EUR700 (Lm302) a month to a maximum of EUR5,000 (Lm2,157).