This is more or less a verbatim of the speech I gave on Wednesday 26 June 2019 in the European Parliament.
Congratulations new members of the European Parliament.
You have managed to convince voters that you are the best people to represent their interests. You will get to shape EU policy for the next five years.
It is up to you to decide what you make of your membership of the European Parliament. You could become one of those MEPs who work 14 hours a day — or one of those who hardly show up. You could return calls to journalists late at night — or you could fall asleep during a committee meeting. (I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes.)
No matter how hard or little you work, you will still get paid a sum of money that will be the envy of many European citizens.
You will have your monthly salary, travel reimbursements and a “flat-rate allowance of €320 to cover accommodation and related costs for each day that MEPs are present in Brussels or Strasbourg on official business”.
Best of all, you will receive 4,513 euros per month, no questions asked.
This payment is called the general expenditure allowance. According to the European Parliament website, you are supposed to spend it on “expenses resulting from Members’ parliamentary activities, such as office rent and management costs, telephone and subscriptions, representation activities, computers and telephones, the organisation of conferences and exhibitions”.
But you could also spend it on other things, that are not at all related to your job as an MEP.
Some jewelry maybe, or tickets for concerts in Ancienne Belgique. 4,000 euros – You could easily buy all the Marvel and DC comic books that are published every month.
You shouldn’t – but you could.
Because no one is checking how you spend the general expenditure allowance.
You don’t have to keep receipts, you don’t have to report what you spent it on, you don’t even have to return what you haven’t spent at the end of your mandate.
So unless a sharp-eyed journalist notices you or your assistant coming in the parliament building with two hundred comic books every month — and starts asking questions why the public should fund your desire to see the latest reboot of the Uncanny X-Men series – there are no consequences.
You may think: but that’s ridiculous! I agree. And so did 540 members of the European Parliament, in April last year.
The plenary declared unambiguously that the general expenditure allowance (GEA) system should undergo some reforms.
Specifically, they said that first, the GEA should be deposited in a separate bank account; second, that MEPs should keep receipts; and third, that the unspent share of the GEA should be returned to the parliament’s coffers at the end of an MEP’s mandate.
A working group then was tasked to flesh out the details of this wish list, and presented options to the Bureau – the parliament’s body for internal decisions. This Bureau consists of the president, fourteen vice-presidents, and five quaestors.
In July 2018 the Bureau decided that they did not have to implement two of the three concrete wishes from the plenary.
Only the 14 vice-presidents took part in the vote. The outcome was eight against six. So eight MEPs were able to decide to overrule demands made by 540 MEPs.
If you MEPs really want to improve transparency, try and become a vice-president so that you will sit in the Bureau.
And then do what you promised. Because guess what, six of the eight Bureau MEPs that blocked further reforms had in fact supported the resolution in plenary with the three-point wish list.
I found out about all of this by making calls, talking to sources, asking them to leak documents. I had to resort to this because the relevant Bureau documents were not made public. This too is against the explicit will of the plenary.
A large majority of MEPs adopted resolutions multiple times saying that, in principle, all documents referred to in the agendas of the meetings of committee coordinators, the Conference of Presidents, and the Bureau should proactively be published on the website of the European Parliament.
That is not happening.
Even when, as a journalist, you file an access-to-documents request, you often receive a rejection from the parliament’s secretary-general, Mr Klaus Welle. Astoundingly, there is a strong correlation between when access to the document is refused and who wrote that document.
The parliament secretary-general almost always refused to grant access to documents written by the parliament secretary-general. Talk about a conflict of interest.
But if you want to file an appeal, this goes to a parliament vice-president, who is also a member of the Bureau, and therefore also has a personal interest in some of these matters.
Fortunately, I have the European Ombudsman on my side.
Last month, she said that the parliament should have released the requested documents on the general expenditure allowance – and that not doing so constituted maladministration.
I’m now waiting to see how the parliament reacts to the Ombudsman’s decision – it has until early August.
The Ombudsman also agreed with me in another transparency case. The European Investment Bank granted Volkswagen Group a 400 million euro loan in 2009, to finance a project aimed at reducing emissions.
What the EIB did not know at the time, was that Volkswagen was designing engines that were, let’s say, not exactly trying to reduce emissions.
The European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) concluded two years ago that the EIB had been misled by Volkswagen, in a report Olaf sent to the EIB. I asked for the report to be public.
Olaf said: ask the EIB. The EIB said: ask Olaf.
I filed an access to documents request, which the EIB refused. I then asked the European Ombudsman for her opinion. Meanwhile, the European Parliament plenary also called for the report’s publication.
Last April, the Ombudsman concluded “that there was a very strong public interest in disclosure of the relevant documents and that this overrode the EIB’s concerns”.
The European Investment Bank has until this weekend to decide whether to publish the report after all. If they do, it will be 17 months since I formally requested access to it.
This shows that as an investigative journalist, a key quality you need is patience. Lots of patience.
It is not always easy to muster that patience, so journalists sometimes follow less formal routes. The fact that the official transparency route is so incredibly slow, leads to intense traffic of documents being leaked left and right.
You may have seen that documentary following Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt, in which something was leaked from the Brexit steering group. One of the staff members walks in the office, angry: “It’s in the fucking Guardian, have you seen it?” His colleague responds: “Are you honestly surprised? It surprised me that you’re surprised.”
In other words: don’t expect anything to remain confidential in the Brussels bubble.
Often that is because the leaker wants to score a political point, but it could also be that an MEP simply disagrees that an unelected secretary-general decides to keep documents in the drawer.
It is perhaps not elegant, to leak stuff to journalists, but it is sometimes the only way to get certain information out into the daylight.
The fact that so many documents remain confidential, is also harming the image of the EU. Every time I write about an EU institution unwilling to make information public, many of the retweets I get are from Brexit supporters. The EU is perceived as a black box, or a collection of black boxes.
Another example of a black box, are the trilogues – the secretive talks between the European Parliament, Commission and Council to find a compromise about an EU bill.
I recently discussed trilogues with an academic researcher, who reminded me that behind-closed-doors deals are nothing out-of-the-ordinary at national level.
But when national politicians do these deals, there is much less criticism than when EU politicians do so.
The only explanation the academic had, was that it was a trust issue. “If you trust your institutions, then you also accept more that they do things behind closed doors,” he said.
In fact, in some ways the EU is already a lot more transparent than national equivalent institutions. Since Jean-Claude Juncker is in charge of the European Commission, commissioners are required to record which lobbyists they meet. This is already more transparent than many national governments – and more transparent than the European Parliament, by the way.
But the image of scheming bureaucrats is difficult to get rid of. I find the trust hypothesis quite plausible, and applicable in other cases too.
Take for example the attendance at the plenary in Strasbourg. When the Austrian chancellor debriefed MEPs on the presidency, I saw MEPs writing postcards, taking calls, and reading newspapers – everything a school teacher would have forbidden. When the president of the Marshall Islands came with a plea for help because she was facing “the oblivion of our homeland” – only seven percent of MEPs showed up.
Confronted with this, MEPs often said ‘plenary week is so busy’, but they also said: ‘the same happens in national parliaments’. That is indeed the case, but there is a key difference: the legitimacy of national parliaments has not been under discussion the past years.
Members of the European Parliament have to be on their best behaviour, because when they screw up, it also damages the image of the EU.
Unfair? Maybe. But you signed up for that when your name was placed on the ballot paper. And you get reasonable financial compensation for the extra scrutiny.