View Full Version : Europe's Parliament: "It's like a gravy train gone mad"

05-24-2004, 01:55 AM
In Europe's Parliament, a Carnival of Perks

New York Times

Published: May 24, 2004

BRUSSELS For all but a handful of its most powerful members, serving in the European Parliament can be a journey into political anonymity.

But the ride is mighty comfortable.

The Parliament is increasingly influential, passing laws on issues like agriculture, commerce and the environment, which affect life in 25 countries. Still, turnout for Parliament elections is slumping, and many Europeans cannot identify their representative. But if being one of 732 Parliament members does not assure great power or prominence, it certainly pays in perks.

"It's really like gravy train gone mad," a member from England said privately.

Take travel expenses. A legislator from Finland can fly round trip to Brussels, where the Parliament meets, for about $240. But under Parliament rules, members are reimbursed at the highest economy price, meaning that a Finnish member could receive about 10 times the cost of the trip.

The pension plan is also generous, offering any member over 60 who has served at least five years about $1,500 a month.

There is no ban on relatives working as Parliament aides, and relatives of at least two dozen members do. There are taxi allowances, free language lessons and daily expense stipends, even on days when no official business is conducted. Most benefits are tax free.

Whether all this bothers Europeans may soon become clear. Beginning June 10, voters from Ireland in the west to Latvia and Lithuania in the east will cast ballots for the Parliament, in the first election since the European Union accepted 10 new countries earlier this month. Issues like trade and immigration have surfaced during the campaign, but so has the Parliament's smorgasbord of perks.

Some see the benefits as threatening the European Union's bid for legitimacy as a continentwide force. The union, said Michiel van Hulten, a member from the Netherlands, needs "institutions that citizens have faith in."

There's an explanation for all the perks, but will it play in Paris or Prague?

The benefits, which cost taxpayers more than $100 million a year, are intended to equalize legislators' salaries, which are determined by their individual countries and vary widely. When the benefits are added up, according to payroll and expense records obtained by The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, a Parliament member on the low end of the pay scale, who earns $40,000 a year, can bring in benefits worth three times that.

If voters are angry, it is perhaps in no small measure because of Hans-Peter Martin and his concealed minicam.

Mr. Martin, a member from Austria, has surreptitiously filmed his colleagues using the benefits system and talking candidly about it most expansively at a meeting of Socialist members in December.

"I'm telling you, if we don't reform the expenses system, it will crucify us once again at the next election," warned Eluned Morgan of Wales.

Another member, Bill Miller of Scotland, said the system had to be brought under control. "I've been accused of being greedy," he said. "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."

The grainy videos are marked by awkward camera angles midsections, double chins and ceiling shots are common but Mr. Martin gets people to talk.

In videotapes provided to The Times and The Herald Tribune, a Finnish legislator, Reino Paasilinna, said it would be difficult to leave Parliament for another job because he would lose half his income. "It's almost 20,000 a month," he said, referring to euros. "And there isn't any taxation."

Mr. Martin also taped a tradition known as "Strasbourg Fridays." One week a month, the legislature meets in Strasbourg, the French city where Europe's union began. Although no meetings are usually scheduled on Fridays, members can collect a daily $314 stipend simply by signing in. Some members race to register at the Parliament office, which opens at 8 a.m., before dashing to the airport.

In one videotaped sequence, an Irish legislator, John Joseph McCartin, waited edgily at 7:59 a.m. to register before making a 9:30 a.m. flight. When the registry did not open on time, he simply left his signature on a piece of paper and rushed to an elevator, saying, "Seven minutes is a lot to lose!"

Some of the videos have been shown on German television, earning Mr. Martin the scorn of colleagues who view him as an unethical self-promoter. The Socialists barred him from meetings, and Pat Cox, the Parliament's president, dismissed his campaign as a "grotesque attempt to maximize personal publicity."

German and Austrian legislators are particularly enraged at him, but they recently pledged to stop accepting more in travel reimbursement than they spend.

Mr. Martin, 46, a former journalist for Der Spiegel, said he began filming because he figured his colleagues would deny his allegations about benefits abuse unless he had proof. "I considered filming an act of defense in the interest of taxpayers and voters," he said. He claims he has 1,500 hours of tapes.

Mr. Martin is fighting ingrained, if bloated, tradition.

In some ways, the perks reflect an institution that melded the political cultures of many countries. Each country pays its European Parliament members the same as delegates to its national legislature.

Last year, Italians were paid the equivalent of about $158,000, while Spaniards were paid about $44,000, according to an analysis by a German social scientist, Hans Herbert von Arnim.

Although the expense system was intended "to compensate for those differences," according to a report from a parliamentary committee last year, it set no limits on compensation, creating windfalls for those with high salaries to begin with.

Even in the Parliament, it is difficult to find unequivocal defenders of the system, but members argue that neither are the perks wholly unjustified.

For example, Mr. McCartin, the Irish member seen on tape rushing to leave Strasbourg, said he earned Friday's stipend by working late the night before. "If you're working the day before until late and you can't get a flight home, I think it's understandable that you get the payment," he said.

Although reforms are needed, the general criticism is overblown, said Richard Balfe, an English member who heads the committee that administers the benefits.

"Don't let's pretend that people are being carried in here on litters by servants picking grapes and then going home," he said. "Most people come into Parliament because they believe they have a mission to accomplish and they work pretty hard at doing it. Clearly they need expenses and facilities to accomplish that mission."

And they get them.

The $6,000-a-year payment for language lessons might sound ample, but the Parliament also offers two free flights to European countries for members who want to take immersion lessons. That comes with the equivalent of a $157 daily stipend.

In addition to the daily stipend of $314 a day that members get when the Parliament is in session, they also have free car service to take them from the airport to the Parliament building. Recently, a $60 weekly cab allowance was tacked on.

Then there's nepotism. Payroll records obtained by The Times and The Herald Tribune for 2002 indicate that at least 30 legislators have relatives on their staffs.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, the militantly Unionist Northern Ireland minister and an outgoing member of Parliament, had three his wife and adult twin sons.

Even Mr. Miller, who called for reform at the Socialist meeting, employs his wife for an annual salary he estimated at about 25,000 euros, or $30,000.

"If you're a politician, you have to be able to trust the staff," he said in an interview. "I trust my partner."

Mr. Balfe employs his wife, the records show, for a monthly salary of 12,052 euros, or $14,462, which amounts to $173,544 a year. By contrast, Mr. Balfe makes 7,107 euros a month, equivalent to about $102,000 a year. Asked to comment on his wife's salary, Mr. Balfe said, "I'm not discussing that matter."

But when Mr. Martin has his hidden camera rolling, almost everything is discussed.

On a summer day in Strasbourg, Mr. Martin casually chatted up Mr. Paasilinna, the laconic Finnish Social Democrat who confided his doubts about changing jobs and losing valuable perks. All told, he said dryly, adding up the value of his monthly salary and benefits in euros, "it is almost 20,000," about $24,000.

The legislator explained that on top of his monthly legislative salary of about $6,000, he pockets the equivalent of $3,000 of his monthly expense allotment of about $4,400.

The biggest boon, he said, was travel. Given the Parliament's policy of reimbursing members for the highest economy airfare price, no matter what they actually pay, Mr. Paasilinna said on tape that he could generally clear the equivalent of $3,000 for each round trip between Helsinki and Brussels. Many months, he makes the trip four times.

In a recent interview, Mr. Paasilinna said that he could not recall the details of his conversation with Mr. Martin, and that his monthly income was more on the order of 12,000 euros, or $14,400. But still, he said, there is need for reining in benefits.

Many members say that they have problems with the benefits, but in the meantime, they deposit the checks.

Esko Seppanen, a Finnish member of the Green Parties bloc, endorsed reform in a recorded conversation with Mr. Martin just after 8 a.m. one morning last November. He had just signed for his daily stipend.

He noted that all Finnish members support changes in the benefits system. But, he said, while waiting for his free ride to the airport, "As long as it's paid, everybody takes it."