It is, as they say, an ill wind that won’t blow somebody some good, and the impending departure from the EU of our nearest neighbours will mean a couple of extra seats on the Euro gravy train for Irish politicians. For when and if Brexit does occur, it will mean that Irish representation in the European Parliament will go from the present eleven to 13 seats.
And competition should be keen for what is generally regarded as one of the most desirable sinecures in Irish political life. The post is none too demanding; MEPs are not expected to hold clinics or make themselves available to the electorate, and their activities in Strasbourg or Brussels are seldom the stuff of scrutiny at home. Many of them choose to spend their five years in a twilight zone of semi-anonymity, making occasional appearances in a ceremonial-type role detached from the everyday concerns of the home electorate.
Onerous is not a word that springs to mind when describing the responsibilities of an MEP, first-hand proof of which was provided by the outgoing MEP, Brian Crowley, who has decided not to seek re-election following his 25 unbroken years in Strasbourg. Because of horrific long-term injuries and prolonged hospitalisation, the popular Crowley has not been able to attend the Parliament over the past five years. However, as he explained, there has never been a problem, since he has been able to carry out his parliamentary duties by working remotely from hospital and from his home in Cork.
Leaving aside Crowley’s personal health misfortunes, maybe his assessment of his workload could raise questions as to whether we are expecting too much from our MEPs, having them traipsing across Europe week after week, attending tedious and inconsequential committee meetings knowing that their views will go unreported and unappreciated, when they might just as easily be doing it all from home.
If a life removed from the rough and tumble of domestic politics is one of the perks of election to the European Parliament, it fades to nothing when set against the unbridled generosity of the salary and expenses that go with the job. A consistent theme of the Brexit campaign has been the unaccountability of the spending in the European institutions.
For many of the MEPs who managed to get elected to Europe, lack of a CV never proved a hindrance to success; feeling that one was worth it was enough to be going on with.
Nor could you blame them, with salaries and expenses enough to set one up for life, even after just one spin on the merry-go-round. A basic salary of just over €100,000 a year, as well as two thirds of medical expenses reimbursed, business class travel, €4,454 for travel outside the home country, and a €320 daily allowance just for signing in. And a golden handshake when it’s time to come home for good.
And then the most contentious of all, a ‘general expenditure allowance’ of € 55,000 a year to fund a constituency office, a perk that requires no receipts or proof of any kind, and which relies entirely on trust. When a group of 28 European journalists – pesky nuisances – protested about the unaccountability of such a payment, they brought the issue to both the European Parliament’s governing body and the Court of Justice.
Their concerns were rejected by both bodies. To demand that MEPs account for these unvouched expenses would be a breach of their privacy, it was held. And whatever rights the EU citizen had to ask about how his money was being spent, they came a poor second to the unpalatability of prying into the expenses of the MEPs.