This time, the European Parliament, the EU's legislative arm, is in the news with the failure of its bid to overhaul its much-criticized system of remuneration. Parliamentary leaders had spent years working out a uniform pay rate for deputies. The figure they finally settled on was almost 9,000 euros a month, plus expenses.
Such a rate would mean that some deputies entering the European Parliament from the new Central and Eastern European member states this June would receive several times the salary of their prime ministers back home. The fact is that, as generous as the proposed salary was, it was meant to keep members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on the "straight and narrow" path of financial rectitude. That's because it would have set stricter procedures for calculating the expenses of MEPs.
At present, the system allows MEPs to claim travel expenses without providing receipts. That enables deputies to claim, for instance, the highest air fare to and from Brussels and Strasbourg -- even if they have traveled by much cheaper means. For this reason, the European Parliament has been branded a "gravy train," with allegations of widespread fraud at taxpayers' expense. This has helped undermine the credibility of the parliament.
While controlling expenses, the new uniform rate was also meant to iron out the vastly different pay rates given to MEPs. For instance, Italian deputies receive some 11,000 euros ($13,900) a month, while Lithuanian deputies take home around 350 ($440) euros a month.
As analyst Gabriel von Toggenburg put it, this discrepancy is bad for morale. "It is obvious that it is not very motivating if you have to work in a body where you have those enormous discrepancies in salaries," he said. "But on the other hand, it is not a very good sign for the EU public discourse if the salary is standardized in a way which is just adjusted to the highest level -- which would be more or less the Italian level. This, I think, is not the ideal message you need now in an atmosphere where public spending is being cut everywhere."
At a Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Austria, and Sweden rejected the new uniform pay rates. Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds said the proposals meant MEPs would earn twice as much as Sweden's national lawmakers. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also said it is not the right time to be giving a substantial pay raise to German MEPs.
Parliament President Pat Cox of Ireland called the ministerial decision "very disappointing." Cox has made pay reform a key issue of his presidency, with a view to giving the legislature a more serious image.
British Liberal deputy Diana Wallace said: "There is a huge sense of disappointment insofar as we were hoping to get this whole wretched business of MEPs' expenses sorted out before the elections in June. And the only way of getting to grips with that was to settle on a standard salary. And now, as the Council [of Ministers] has failed to reach agreement, we are now stuck, and it seems to me unlikely that we will be able therefore to get something in place over the next five years, because the problem will be that people [new members] will come to this parliament in June and say they have come on such-and-such a basis, and therefore we will not be able to change anything again until a new mandate."
Parliamentary officials are particularly annoyed that the ministers are "moving the goalposts," as they put it. They recall that the Greek EU presidency last year raised objections about a number of points in the new pay statute, and the parliament subsequently made changes. But the presidency at that time made no mention of the envisaged pay rates as being excessive.
MEP Wallace says some of the deputies themselves feel the level of pay proposed was, indeed, overly generous. But she says adopting it as the standard rate would have meant some MEPs taking a pay cut. "I think everybody has bent over backwards to go as far as they can, and all of us have things about [the new statute] that we don't like," she said. "But it was the best compromise we could get, that the whole house was willing to sign up to, and it would have dealt with the problem of expenses."
She said that in the coming election, the parliament must "come out fighting" -- meaning that it must tell the public that it tried to solve the problem and had already compromised on a range of issues, but that the Council of Ministers has "thrown out the last opportunity."