A case lost by a group of journalists representing the 28 EU-member countries in the European Court of Justice last September will cast a shadow over upcoming European Parliament elections.
In our view, we actually were among close to 500 million people who lost when the court decided that no EU citizen has a right to access documents about expenditures claimed by the members of the European parliament (MEPs).
This is remarkable in light of the fact that many countries, or member states, already allow access to the expenses of their national parliamentarians.
The documents we had asked for were proof of expenses held by MEPs in their role as legislators.
In 2019, all members receive €4,513 each month for keeping offices in their home countries while not on duty in Brussels and Strasbourg.
This allowance comes on top of their salaries (€8,757.70/month), and in addition to reimbursements for travel costs (business airfare/first-class rail fare).
They also receive allowances for living costs (€320/day). The office allowances represents more than €40m a year.
Our own investigations (brought together under The MEPs Project) had shown that many of these offices just did not exist.
Out of 748 MEPs at the time of our investigation in 2017, only 53 were prepared to show documentation for actual spending.
Some parliamentarians told us they supported more transparency and were campaigning internally for more stringent rules to be put in place.
But the vast majority preferred the status quo.
A third of MEPs even declined to reveal addresses of their offices, gave addresses that could not be found on the map or simply refused to answer.
So much for transparency of public spending.
To our astonishment in 2018 the European Court of Justice turned us down.
Bringing to an end a three-year battle, it decided that the MEPs’ right to privacy trumped our right of access to documents.
We did not ask what tax the parliamentarians pay or how they otherwise use their salary.
We were not looking for information about their private lives.
Rather we asked for documents that the European parliament is supposed to have in order to verify that this public money is spent in accordance with the rules.
This argument was not enough to break the privacy barrier, we were told by the court.
Thus, we lost the legal battle. Then there was the political reaction.
On 31 January 2019 a majority of the Members of the European Parliament voted in favour of a change of the rules that govern their expenditures.
It will in the future be made technically possible for individual MEPs to publish a voluntary auditof their use of the General Expenditure Allowance (GEA), the office money, on their official websites.
That is to say:
No demand for auditing.
No obligations to document costs.
No accountability of how the allowances are used.
This is as good as it gets.
Considering climate change, widening economic gaps, excessive tax evasion, money laundering and citizens experiencing feelings of loss of power and influence, politicians’ use of €4,513 per month is of course a negligible detail – were it not for the principles at stake.
When our elected representatives do not feel a need to make themselves accountable, is there anyone elected or otherwise in power who cannot shield themselves behind a curtain of private integrity?
In 1999, the EU commission led by president Jacques Santer was forced to resign.
The resignation was triggered by leaked documents revealing misuse of public money. The leak was picked up by the European parliament and the then-members demanded a thorough investigation.
Five independent experts were tasked to scrutinise the allegations.
The experts concluded in their final report: “It is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility.”
Twenty years on we find ourselves in a similar position – this time with the members of the European parliament rejecting responsibility and accountability.
This is all the more surprising as now the EU commissioners and the top officials of the EU agencies publish details about their travel expenses.
We, the journalists from The MEPs Project who have co-signed this opinion piece do not share a political platform.
We have very different opinions on the future of the EU.
However, as reporters covering European affairs, we have one common objective: to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions as well as their use of taxpayers´ money.
Candidates for the European Parliament who sympathise with this objective should be welcome to declare their belief in transparency – not as an abstract goal but as a solid foundation, starting with a promise to show how they themselves will use their office allowances.
Candidates with differing priorities, or candidates annoyed by journalists who they feel interfere with their private sphere are of course free not to promise anything.
You do not answer to us. You only answer to your voters.
We thought the European Court of Justice would recognise the democratic public interest in this request.
We thought the European parliament would share our concern and seize the chance to strengthen the legitimacy of the parliament.
We were wrong on both assumptions.
Staffan Dahllöf, Anuška Delić, Nils Mulvad, Susan Mitchell, Minna Knus-Galán, Hans-Martin Tillack, Kristof Clerix, Pavla Holcova, Sara Menafra, Marcos García Rey, Delphine Reuter, Mark Lee Hunter, Tina Kristan, Tiina Lundell are part of the MEPs Project but only write here in their personal capacities.