BRUSSELS - Journalists from all over Europe have asked the European Court of Justice to rule on the hidden records of MEPs' allowances after the EP denied the journalists' request.

The 29 journalists, representing all EU member countries, have come together in a simultaneous complaint to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg being inspired by the yearly Dataharvest conferences in Brussels and issues covered by this website.

The group, called The MEPs Project, consists of individuals who have all tried to get access to documentation of how the elected politicians from their respective country use their allowances, which is money given for different reasons on top of the salaries. All in all the accounts for 751 parliamentarians’ allowances have been requested.

The European Parliament's administration rejected all the requests on the same three grounds:

  • It is a matter of privacy how the money is spent, information cannot be revealed on the ground of data protection.
  • The request would be too cumbersome to process, referred to as ”excessive workload”.
  • The Parliament is actually not in the possession of relevant documents.

”No basis in EU legislation”

Lawyer Nataša Pirc Musar, Slovenia’s former Information Commissioner, will represent the group in court. She says these arguments do not hold water: "Personal data protection rules were not properly interpreted and the denial of access to requested documents was unjustified. By simply denying access to requested documents," she goes on, "the European Parliament is effectively granting MEPs the right to make public spending secretive and is giving them full immunity from public monitoring of their dealings. We argue that the reasons given to the reporters for denying their requests have no basis in any European regulation."

No records – really?

In a written statement the group put several question marks to the Parliament's claim that documentation for the given allowances allegedly does not exist: ”We believe this fact illustrates perfectly that monitoring of MEPs' spending by the European Parliament is lacking in vigor. By the same token, this fact legitimizes the public's right to know and monitor public spending by this institution.”

This claim is also contradicted by the fact that newly elected MEPs are advised to open a separate bank account to receive their monthly general allowance payments, precisely to enable transparent spending, the group points out. (For the full Statement with a list of the participants see Documents)

Hiring own staff

Since 2009 all MEPs get the same salary, €8,020.53 per month. These payments are not part of the case. How the individual MEP uses their money is solely a question between themselves, their families, and the tax authorities.

But on top of their salaries the politicians receive:

  • Reimbursements for travel expenses, business class airfare, first class rail or €0.5 per km for driving own car up to 1,000 km – paid against documented costs.
  • Daily subsistence allowance (meals and overnight stay) after proved attendance at meetings – €306 per day.
  • General expenditure allowance (phone costs, computers et cetera) – €4,320 per month.
  • Staffing arrangements (assistants in Brussels, Strasbourg and in home country other than staff employed by the Parliament) – up to €21,379 per month, whereof €5,344.75 can be used for consultancies, and other service providers.

These are the claimed costs the journalists have asked documentation for.

In all, the Parliament put 474 million euro on the 2014 budget for salaries and allowances, seemingly not knowing how a large part of the sum was spent, and not willing to disclose whatever records exist.

Meeting point Dataharvest Conference

Journalists have throughout the years repeatedly reported alleged misuse of allowances such as MEPs using EU money for national campaigns or having family members employed as staff. But the overall picture has been lacking.

Anuška Delić, a reporter at the Slovenian daily Delo took initiative to form the Project MEP after she had tried herself to get access to records of how Slovenian MEPs use their allowances.

"I got annoyed with the EP's claim about personal data and lawyer Nataša Pirc Musar helped me with the Confirmatory Application (appealing the first rejection). I then thought of the broader approach and talked to those in the upcoming project who attended the Dataharvest conference. After the conference I asked journalists I know in different countries, and used journalists Miranda Patrucic, Margo Smit and Marina Walker's recommendations for getting to colleagues from countries that were at that point still missing", she says.

Historic initiative

Another step in the process was taken when several participants in the project met at the global investigative journalism conference in Norway in October, adding absent participants on a somewhat scratchy Skype connection. Lengthy email threads and cloud-based services have been the tools for most of the preparatory work.

"In my view the main newsworthiness lies in the mere fact that this is an historic initiative as there has never been a case before where this many journalists would take an EU institution to court over anything, let alone freedom of information", Anuška Delić points out.

As this article is put online similar news stories are published on different European media platforms 20th November and after. This kind of semi-syndicated publishing by reporters engaged in a common cause can in it self be seen as a novelty in the media landscape.

Staffan Dahllöf
Photo © European External Action Service

This article was first published on www.wobbing.eu

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