BRUSSELS - No end appears in sight for the EU's infamous "gravy train" after the bloc failed on Jan. 26 to agree on reforms to how EU lawmakers are paid. Proposals to give the same salary to members of the European Parliament across the enlarging EU were blocked by Austria, France, Germany and Sweden.
Last month MEPs agreed to adopt a single salary for all of about 8,500 euros per month before deductions and allow claims only for expenses actually incurred. Under the current system, MEPs are paid the same as deputies in their home country, but can, for example, claim for a first-class plane fare even if they take the train.
Moreover they do not have to produce receipts for other expenses. EU sources said such fiddles can make MEPs an average of 40,000 euros a year, reinforcing public perceptions that EU officials slurp from a lavish "gravy train."
The proposed new system had faced criticism that it would lead to huge disparities in MEPs' purchasing power at home. And in poorer incoming EU states some may find themselves paid several times more than their own prime ministers.
Defenders of the reform pointed out that this was no more bizarre than the current system, under which pay varies between 2,500 euros per month for Spanish MEPs to more than 12,000 euros for their Italian colleagues. And after the EU takes in 10 more countries on May 1, MEPs in new members such as Hungary will be on just 800 euros a month.
But Germany notably stood out against the new deal, arguing it could not sell such big pay rises for MEPs at a time of economic retrenchment at home. And it was unhappy about how the new salaries would be taxed. "From the view of German domestic politics, the timing is a very, very difficult problem," Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters. "We had no choice but to say 'no.'"
Britain's European Minister Denis MacShane, lamenting the current system as "fraudulent, unacceptable and indefensible," said, "I regret that conservative MEPs from Germany have campaigned against these reforms." He pointed out that, even though there was no agreement on the overall package of reform, EU lawmakers can still agree to clean up their travel expenses, since this comes down to the Parliament's own regulations.
"The European Parliament has one last chance to clean up its act before enlargement and the June election," MacShane said.
Diplomats had warned that if no deal was struck now, it might take years to renegotiate the accord, since European elections in June are set to replace the current set of MEPs.
But with parliamentary work ending in late April before election campaigning starts, there is little time to forge a new agreement. A diplomat with the EU's Irish presidency said it was now "unlikely there'll be an agreement before the June elections."
European Parliament Presi-dent Pat Cox said MEPs had compromised on all three of the biggest objections raised by EU member states to their status - immunity from prosecution, taxation of salaries and MEPs' retirement age. By voting for reform last month "MEPs went the extra mile to deliver a compromise that would make a deal possible," the Irishman said in a statement.
"This Parliament has voted to put its house in order. We have delivered on our part of the bargain. We have backed the deal for reform," he said. "It will be deeply disappointing if, at this late stage, member states cannot fulfill their part of the bargain."