It is inevitable that the most respected parts of revered institutions occasionally get their knickers in a twist.
This has most certainly been the case here in the European Parliament concerning MEPs’ questions to the European Commission and Council.
For some years there have been sessions at the plenary sitting of the European Parliament where MEPs ask oral questions to the President of the European Commission. While nothing like Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, it is a useful way of raising issues and can elicit helpful information. We may also ask written questions to both the Commission and the European Council.
Replying to these questions obviously costs money. European Voice, the respected European newspaper, has taken the cost issue up with a vengeance. The paper is so exercised by the matter of cost that it gave it front page billing last week.
A spokesperson from the European Parliament wrote a letter to the Editor in response, which was less than positive. Incredibly, this set European Voice off again. This week there was an entire leader devoted to this one subject entitled “To ask the price of MEPs’ questions cannot be taboo”.
Indeed it cannot, but European Voice and those who heed their call must understand that these questions are an essential tool in, to use the European Parliament’s own phrase “democratic oversight”. I have made use of questions to both the Commission and the Council on many occasions as have all my Labour colleagues. It enables us to find out more about what is going on and aid our decision making.
It is, however, worrying that, as European Voice point out in their lengthy leader, the actual costs of asking a question are not calculated. We therefore have no way of knowing the price-tag attached to our demands. Compare this to the UK where the average cost of a question is 185 euros. I would certainly support better accounting while at the same time defending MEPs’ right to ask as many questions as they need.
The number of questions asked to the European Commission and Council has, of course, gone up with the enlargement of the European Union. During the 2004 – 2009 term the number asked was 6,000. It is twice that figure so far for the present mandate. This was inevitable as the 12 new member states found their feet. A European Parliament with 27 countries will inevitably ask more questions than one comprising fifteen.
Although I think European Voice has gone completely over the top on this one, they do have a very valid point. I would certainly support the costs of asking questions being calculated and made public. It is quite simply a matter of public accountability. The people who vote for us should know what we do and how much it costs.
The European Parliament and the EU as a whole have for too long operated in an opaque way where it is very difficult to find financial information. I believe we are getting better, as demonstrated by the fact that all Labour MEPs have their office accounts audited and put the audit certificates on their websites. Labour MEPs also publish details of their travel costs.
The European Parliament as a whole should sharpen up its act. We are a democratic, elected body and the public has a right to know.