Tuesday, May 25, 2004

For EU Deputies, the Gravy Train Can Add 100,000 Euros a Year

In a front-page article in the International Herald Tribune concerning perks at the EU Parliament, Doreen Carvajal and Martin Gottlieb ask whether it is a system out of control.
…the legislature's well-oiled system of perks and privileges … might make a corporate president smile in recognition: chauffeured cars; daily and monthly stipends that can add tens of thousands of euros to basic salaries; jobs for relatives paid out of a E150,000 (about $180,000) a year secretarial allowance; free health care; pensions that, as one legislator put it, can put "gin on the terrace"; and, most stunningly, a travel expense procedure that reimburses legislators for as much as 10 times the amount of their airfare ticket prices.

According to payroll and expense records obtained by the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, a legislator can add well over E100,000 to a base salary when all the tax-free benefits are calculated. …

"I have been accused of boarding the gravy train," said Bill Miller, a Scottish member who argued for reforms. "I have been accused of being dishonest. I've been accused of being greedy. I've been accused of being a parasite. I've been accused of being a leech. And that's just by members of my own political party."…

Whether the legislators will be crucified remains unclear. Europeans will engage in sweeping elections June 10 to 13, sending 732 delegates from the 25 countries of the newly expanded European Union to a legislature whose laws will govern life from western Ireland to the borders of Ukraine.

Substantial issues involving trade, immigration and integration of the 10 new, mostly Eastern European members are certainly campaign trail topics. But so, in many places, are the legislature's grab bag of goodies, with items like the E262 daily expense allowance legislators receive when they register for work in the Parliament's seats in Brussels or Strasbourg, a delicate election problem for some who have been seen signing in at 8 a.m. and then bolting for planes home.

Michiel van Hulten, a Dutch Democratic Socialist member who has campaigned for reform, said the issue was basic for the EU because to win popular acceptance it needed "institutions that citizens have faith in." …

Budgeted at nearly E100 million in the aggregate, European deputies' benefits easily top those for members of any EU-member national parliament. (The U.S. Congress, in which members of the House receive million-dollar budgets to finance sizable staffs is another story, but nepotism in hiring is barred there and reimbursement is generally tied to actual costs incurred.) …

The system of pay and perks has evolved like new generations of computers, each more efficient and faster than the last.

When members complained that they couldn't sign for their daily expense money at 8 a.m. without risking missing their flights, registration hours were pushed back to 7 a.m.
Read the entire article, notably how one slightly disheveled Austrian legislator (Hans-Peter Martin) assembled some of the most revealing information about the perk system with "a hidden minicam the size of a big sponge".

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