European assembly votes for austerity

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The Independent Online
The European Parliament voted yesterday to freeze a quarter of next year's salary payments for the EU's 20 commissioners until Brussels cleans up its internal financial management.

Whilst EU governments strive increasingly frantically to get their financial houses in order and qualify on time for monetary union, the Strasbourg Parliament has endorsed an austerity budget for 1997, accepting that the bloc's paymasters are in no mood to see their contributions rise next year. Parliament, which shares EU budgetary authority with the 15 governments, voted minor increases for the controversial Trans-European Networks - vast transport and infrastructure projects to link Europe together - but slashed regional grants by pounds 800m to ensure that spending is held to pounds 66bn next year. This represents an increase of less than 1 per cent on 1996.

But MEPs, who have not yet shaken off their own gravy-train image, turned their new found zeal for thrift for the first time on top Commission officials.

Over a quarter of the pounds 3.2m to be spent on salaries for the commissioners will be put in "reserve" until they can convince Strasbourg that they are serious about cracking down on in-house fraud and financial mismanagement.

This move follows a Belgian police investigation into the Commission's tourism unit, for alleged misappropriation of funds set aside for the 1990 European Year of Tourism.

MEPs angrily deny their new emphasis on value for money is ironic coming in the same week as an ITV documentary on alleged fiddling of parliamentary expenses and perks. Viewers were shown MEPs apparently disappearing for the day minutes after collecting the pounds 120 in expenses they are entitled to for every day they show up in parliament. In Strasbourg this is sometimes referred to as the "sign on and sod off" system.

Detlev Samland, the German chairman of parliament's budget committee who was featured on the film, branded the allegations "daft". It could not be assumed, he said, that MEPs were not working because they were not sitting in the chamber all day.

He admitted however that there was a case for reforming the salary system for MEPs whereby Italians and Germans are paid almost four times as much as their Greek, British or Irish counterparts. These generous perks were originally devised to offset the in-built discrepancy on pay rates which mirror national parliamentary salaries. With travel expenses reimbursed at a flat rate per kilometre (whatever the fare they actually pay), Greek or Irish MEPs who have the longest distances to travel also enjoy generous and quite legal profits under the present system.