Image problems for EU parliament ahead of elections
Low attendance rates and transparency, high expense claims and running costs -- European parliamentarians are battling a negative image ahead of EU elections.Brussels - The parliamentarians are working hard to show a more caring, committed face, and to make the point that the work they do is increasingly important for all European voters.
But the image they are fighting, as they head into elections throughout Europe on June 4-7, is of a gravy train running between the parliament's two seats in Brussels and Strasbourg.
For French Socialist MEP Gilles Savary the chamber has a key role to play in passing laws drawn up by the European Commission, and as the only elected EU body.
However, he admitted that in some EU nations the European parliament is seen as a second-class legislature fit for retired or idling politicians and minor celebrities.
"We have to live with this sort of thing," echoed British Labour member Richard Corbett. "It's what happens in some countries and some parties."
Out of 78 French MEPs elected in 2004, 67 will complete their mandate. The others have fled the European project the moment an alluring national role was dangled in front of them.
A similar ethos can be seen among Italian members of the European parliament.
In comparison, 92 of the 99 Germans elected and 74 of the 78 British MEPs have remained faithful to their European mandate.
"On the whole, the European parliament is made up of serious people, with plenty of experience," Corbett assured.
That is not an opinion shared by veteran Italian MEP Jas Gawronski, who first won a seat in 1979 and is a member of the centre-right European People's Party, the biggest political grouping in the parliament of almost 800 members.
In a recent interview with the Corriere della Sera he didn't mince his words.
"A third of those elected are bone idle. They follow nothing, they understand nothing and the tarnish the image of the institution.
"Some of them use their expenses for personal use," he added, in words that might strike a chord among British as well as Italian voters,
"Another third do the necessary and it's only the final third who make the parliament work," he bemoaned.
"Very few of those elected are capable of steering or rocking a vote. Those are the ones that count. The others are indecisive, even if they are very hard working," confirmed Savary.
The published findings of an internal audit answered some key questions and posed many others.
Each MEP of the current 785 MEPs is allowed up to 15,500 euros per month for staff costs, representing 10 percent of the parliament's annual budget. Bad enough, some thought, but was worse was to come, with the audit showing examples of MEPs with no accredited assistants claiming the money.
Elsewhere payments were made to companies which engaged in no perceptible activity in their annual accounts.
Over the last year or so British MEPs have been particularly in the expenses spotlight.
The latest is Tom Wise, a former UK Independence Party (UKIP) MEP who now sits as an independent and has been charged in Britain with false accounting and money laundering,
As a result of such cases the spending of Euro MPs will be controlled more tightly in future with real employment contracts for assistants.
"But the bad reputation is there and it will be difficult to erase it," deplored German Conservative MEP Klaus-Heiner Lehne.
National scandals don't help, especially when so many European elections votes are perceived as verdicts on home governments.
The deep row over British MPs expenses claimed the scalp of the parliamentary speaker Michael Martin on Tuesday. In Italy the scandal is over parliamentary assistants working in the grey market.
To tarnish the reputation further, last year a group of Scandinavian MEPs launched a campaign calling on the European Parliament to "only use hotels which issue a guarantee that the hotel is not involved in sex trade."