|Some features of the European Parliament's work are still surprisingly "national" rather than "European" in character. MEPs are not all paid the same salary. Instead they are paid by their home country at the same rate as members of their national parliaments. And even for European elections, Europe-wide political parties have yet to replace national parties. Efforts to introduce standard pay and conditions for MEPs have ground to a halt for the present. But moves to encourage the creation of European parties have made better progress.
MEPs are governed by a whole battery of rules on their status, pay and expenses, parliamentary immunity from legal action and other matters. In some cases they are subject to their own national law, in others they are governed by EU rules. This gives rise to all sorts of anomalies. For example, a Spanish MEP receives the same salary as a member of the Cortés while a German MEP gets the same as a member of the Bundestag. And not only are MEPs' salaries paid by their home countries, they are taxed at national rates too. Yet they are all doing the same job and all working chiefly in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Efforts have been made over the years to agree on a "common statute", or single set of rules, which would iron out all the differences. However, the statute has to be approved not only by the European Parliament but also by national governments. MEPs thought they were close to wrapping up this matter when in June 2003 Parliament agreed on a draft statute after years of trying to reach a compromise acceptable to the governments, which meet in the Council of Ministers. The Council, however, announced that it objected to three points: the retirement age for MEPs, the tax arrangements for their salaries and questions to do with privileges and immunities, which it said could only be changed on the basis of negotiations among EU governments.
Parliament responded by voting again in December 2003 and deciding by a very large majority to eliminate these bones of contention. Accepting the wish of several governments which wanted to be able to levy national income tax on MEPs' salaries, even though these were now to be paid from the EU budget, Parliament agreed that they should be subject not only to European tax but also to national tax. Their only condition was that there should be no double taxation (a point accepted by the Council). Parliament agreed to deal with the immunities and privileges separately, asking the Member States to revise the relevant 1965 Protocol. Lastly, MEPs proposed a compromise on the retirement age, which the then Italian Presidency of the EU had indicated would be acceptable: MEPs would be entitled to a pension from the age of 63 (instead of from 65 as the Council wanted or from 60 as proposed by Parliament in June).
It seemed that, twenty-five years after the first direct elections to the European Parliament, all its Members might at last be governed by the same rules. But unexpectedly and at the very last minute - during the Council meeting of 26 January 2004 which was due to approve the draft statute - a number of ministers objected to the level of the proposed salaries for MEPs, which had been set at half that for a judge of the European Court of Justice and which until then had been unopposed. The whole statute has therefore been kicked into touch and it will now be up to a new Parliament to summon up the courage to try once more.
Statute for political parties
A more propitious fate befell the statute dealing with the legal status and funding of European political parties. At present MEPs are elected as representatives of domestic political parties, although once they arrive in Brussels they generally operate through one of the "political groups", representing views across the political spectrum, which bring the national parties together. Outside the European Parliament, some of the major parties long ago set up Europe-wide federations, although these were some way from having the cohesiveness and public impact of political parties. However, over the years a number of European-level parties have been formed, such as the EPP (christian democrats/centre-right), the Party of European Socialists, the ELDR (liberals), the European Free Alliance (chiefly regionalist parties) and the Greens, while others are in the process of being set up.
It is thought that there would be benefits if EU-wide political parties were to gain a high profile, especially to counter the tendency for European elections to be fought on domestic rather than European issues. Indeed the European Community Treaty states that "political parties at European level are important as a factor for integration within the Union. They contribute to forming a European awareness and to expressing the political will of the citizens of the Union". In spite of the importance thus attached to European parties, it took some time - although not as long as in the case of the MEPs' statute - to reach an agreement between EU governments and between Parliament and the EU governments on the rules for the recognition of European parties, which will entail funding for these parties from the EU budget.
The regulation on "political parties at European level", which will become operational in July 2004 after the European elections, lays down that, to achieve recognition and hence EU funding, a European party must be represented, in at least one quarter of Member States, by Members of the European Parliament, or in the national parliaments or regional assemblies; alternatively, it must have received, in at least one quarter of the Member States, at least three percent of the votes cast at the most recent European elections. A European party also must respect the principles of the EU, i.e. liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.
The EU budget will make available 8.4 million euros per year for funding European political parties. Of this, 15% will be distributed in equal shares among the parties, while the rest will be distributed in proportion to the number of members elected to the European Parliament. To receive financing from the budget a European-level political party must file an application with the European Parliament each year. Any money thus received may only be used to cover expenditure directly linked to the objectives set out in its political programme and may not be used for the direct or indirect funding of national political parties.
A European party must also publish annually its revenue and expenditure and declare its other sources of funding by providing a list of donors and of donations exceeding 500 euros received from each donor. A party may not accept anonymous donations, donations from legal bodies in which the state holds more than 50% of the capital, nor donations exceeding 12,000 euros per year from individuals or organisations.