Transparency is not the only area where different sets of rules apply to those who pay taxes and those who spend them. While taxpayers are burdened by the ever-growing complexities of tax laws and regulations, MEPs do not face any scrutiny over how they spend their General Expenditure Allowance. If a private, EU-based company annually spent $45 million tax-free with no documents to account for this spending, EU officials would be first to call for a thorough investigation and tighter rules, yet when MEPs spend taxpayers’ money without documenting their expenses, this is allowed, since the supranational government sets its own rules.
This case demonstrates that taxpayers lack the means to increase their EU representatives’ accountability, pointing to the overall inefficiency of any remote government. The distance of Strasbourg or Brussels (physical or otherwise) makes it difficult for the citizens to oversee their representatives – or even name them. A 2014 UK opinion poll revealed only 11 percent of those polled could be confident about naming their MEP, compared with 52 percent being able to name their MP. The rules on MEPs’ General Expenditure Allowance are set by the European Parliament itself and – despite widespread public calls for more accountability – an overwhelming majority of MEPs recently voted against greater scrutiny of these allowances. This shows the EU is also not effective at self-governance. Thus, one can only doubt that the EU could effectively govern the “ever-closer union” that some of its leaders actively strive to achieve.
At the end of the day, this is also a story about temptation short-sightedly created by MEPs themselves. Indeed, the report found that since 2010 only five to 20 MEPs (out of 748) have returned unused allowances for national offices. While this funding does not necessarily lead to corruption in every instance, the availability of these funds makes it tempting for honest MEPs to spend the full amount of the allowances provided to them, albeit not necessarily for their intended purpose.
This problem is of course not exclusive to the European Parliament. It is inherent in any bureaucracy that seduces its members with ample resources without appropriate audits. The allegations made against French presidential candidate François Fillon are a case in point.
Instead of making MEPs more accessible to their constituents, the allowances have placed MEPs in a different world from the rest of taxpayers, one with less scarcity and fewer external controls. No wonder the EU is demanding a $112 billion divorce bill from the United Kingdom: It needs their funds to keep up with this lifestyle.
Can any large, remote government operate without also providing financial incentives for corruption and self-aggrandizement? Does the European Parliament, by removing these transactions a step further away from public scrutiny, increase the moral problems associated with governance? Is it possible to concentrate power without multiplying iniquity? This report, the Scriptures, and Lord Acton’s famous observations seem to point toward a disappointing answer.
(Photo credit: jeffowenphotos. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)