THE European Parliament gets a very mixed press, some of it warranted, some of it not.
Initially it was composed of people appointed by the governments. Eventually, in 1979, its members were directly elected for the first time.
It is now the second biggest democratically elected body in the world with almost 350 million Europeans eligible to vote. Only India’s parliament has a larger electorate.
Deprived of power for many years it now has an equal say with the member state governments in about three quarters of all legislation and this will increase to over 90% if the Lisbon treaty is ever adopted.
However, while many of the MEPs have adapted to take their responsibilities more seriously, there are still several signs of the old gravy-train mentality.
One of the more deplorable is the system of assistants to the MEPs. To take the job seriously, each MEP needs at least one assistant who will not just reply to letters but will cover committees they cannot get to and write reports.
Up to now this has been the total preserve of the MEPs. They are handed about €17,000 a month to cover their staff expenses in Brussels, Strasbourg and at home, and can employ whoever they want, pay them whatever they want.
There have been lots of stories of male MEPs hiring girls according to the length of their skirts, firing them on a whim or paying them a pittance.
Investigations show some unscrupulous MEPs collect the money themselves indirectly through appointing spouses or children as assistants, or channelling the funds through bogus companies.
There has been much anecdotal evidence of powerful vested interests such as the German car industry supplying and paying for MEPs’ assistants.
The labour law of the MEPs’ country applied to their assistants as did the tax and social security system, so there were up to 27 different systems operating.
Then there was the ridiculous situation of MEPs from the new member states being paid less than 10% of what was available to pay their assistants, because up to now MEPs have been paid the same as the elected representatives in their home country.
This varies from about €13,000 a month for Italians to about €900 a month for Hungarians, but will change after the June elections when all MEPs will be paid €7,000 a month – a slight drop for the Irish but a huge increase for those at the other end of the scale.
After next June’s elections the way assistants are employed and paid will be radically changed. For starters only relatives already in an MEP’s pay will be allowed to continue in that post, but just for the next five years.
Second, while MEPs will be able to choose whoever they want as an assistant, that person will have to fulfil the usual conditions EU staff normally have to fulfil, such as being fluent in two languages; being an EU citizen; and having a professional qualification. The parliament will employ and pay them according to a salary scale based on their experience and will cover social welfare, sick pay, maternity and pension payments.
It won’t be as easy for an MEP to fire them. They will have to explain why they no longer want the assistant who will have a right to a judicial review and be entitled to compensation if their contract is cut short.
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