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EDITORIAL | Wednesday, 26 September 2007

A victory for openness

The draft recommendation by the European Ombudsman to the European Parliament is a victory for Maltese journalism and a recognition of the people’s right to access to information held by the European institutions. In the first ever appeal by a Maltese newspaper to the Ombudsman, MaltaToday has won the right to access to data concerning Malta’s MEPs’ payments for the job they carry out in Brussels and Strasbourg. It concerns the per diem allowances they receive for the committee meetings they attend, the salaries they pay their assistants, and their travel allowances. The Ombudsman’s decision is indeed a recognition of the openness and transparency which should define the European Union and which the Maltese citizen signed up to when voting in favour of EU membership. In his decision, the Ombudsman has rightfully prized openness over the claims of privacy which the European Parliament used to restrict access to the payments made to MEPs by the European taxpayer. With this information, Malta’s MEPs can now be held accountable to what they have achieved during their tenure at the European Parliament. It will determine how much MEPs actually earn as euro-parliamentarians and how much in travel allowances they have claimed over and above their actual travelling costs. With such a generous system of payments and allowances, it should be the taxpayers’ right to know how the European Parliament spends its money, and what MEPs are achieving when enjoying the benefits of these allowances. MEPs are currently paid hugely different salary levels. The surplus from travel allowances is used by some to top up unrealistic incomes, while giving other well-paid MEPs inappropriate additional income. The problem is that it is difficult for reformers to press for change when other MEPs will be losing income. Millions of euros hang in the balance over the urgent debate on the reform of MEPs’ allowances and pension benefits – money which is paid by the European taxpayer for the functioning of the European institutions. This newspaper believes that MEPs deserve to be paid good professional rates for the work they carry out. But it is also true that MEPs are paid a lot by comparison to most of the people they represent, but much less so if compared to the salaries of the lobbyists who seek to influence them. We know that some MEPs work harder than others. Some achieve a lot, others not much. Some have commercial interests in Malta, or keep other jobs and positions in addition to their parliamentary ones. And we also know that, in general, MEPs can stretch the rules governing payment of allowances for their own benefit while others resist the temptation – some can sign in for meetings they do not attend; they can claim handsome distance allowances over and above their actual travel costs; they may pay generous salaries to particular assistants. The standards of one should not be taken as representative of all. But voters should have all the information they need to make an informed decision when they vote candidates to the European Parliament. Access to the payments made by the European Parliament to Malta’s MEPs is one such way. By being granted access to this information, voters will know whether their MEPs’ performance over their five-year stint in Brussels has been truly worthy of their pecuniary gains. But another message from the Ombudsman’s draft recommendation is the revelation concerning the European Parliament’s behaviour in treating MaltaToday’s request for access. By finding the European Parliament’s practice as having constituted an act of maladministration, the Ombudsman’s admonishment serves to prove how even the highest authorities must be questioned into giving answers and be as transparent and open as possible. Even the European Data Protection Supervisor was of the opinion that it was “obvious” that access had to be given to MaltaToday. The overriding principle was simple: the basic consideration in a transparent and democratic society has to be that the public has the right to be informed about MEPs’ behaviour, and that MEPs must be aware of this public interest – especially when concerning public funds. In itself, this is a recognised objective that justifies the interference with the privacy of democratically elected MEPs. It’s a decision which affirms the principles of openness and democracy, the European values which must become everyday virtues of Maltese politics as well.

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