There are many reasons why MEPs battle with poor transport connections in order to attend the plenary sessions in Strasbourg but the primary reason is money, reports PublicServiceEurope.com
Those who watched European Commission President JosÚ Manuel Barroso give a kicking to British Conservatives in the European parliament earlier this month might have missed a detail - the Strasbourg assembly was full. Why is it that all members of the European Parliament attend the plenary sessions? The big turnout was all the more surprising given that the vast majority moan about the inaccessibility of the French city, which is poorly served by both air and train. Most MEPs are in favour of doing away with the wasteful Strasbourg seat entirely.
Figures posted to the newly-revamped website VoteWatch Europe
show that around a dozen MEPs have a 100 per cent plenary attendance record. Only a handful of the 754 members attend less than 50 per cent of the time. Of these, at least one is unwell. Irish Liberal MEP Brian Crowley has been in hospital for surgery and submits monthly medical certificates.
George Becali, a non-aligned Romanian member who is bottom of the list with a 23 per cent plenary attendance record, has struggled to attend for "personal reasons" – though he would not expand further. Isabelle Thomas, the French Socialist, and Karim Zeribi - the French Green Party member - can be excused their poor attendance because they have only been on the job for two months. Everyone else battles down to Strasbourg at least half of the time. The primary reason for this consistency is money. If MEPs do not attend at least half the plenary sessions - there are 12 a year - they lose their office allowance and their assistants risk not getting paid. But as well as the stick, the parliament employs the carrot. If politicians participate in at least 50 per cent of the plenary roll-call votes, they are paid a daily bonus of €304. If they attend the session but fail to make the required number of votes, the bonus is halved.
"If I have to leave at 12.30pm and the voting session has been light in the morning, I sometimes wonder if I am going to make my 50 per cent," explains Chris Davies, a British Liberal Democrat. It is sometimes necessary to leave early in order to make the plane or train back home. And MEPs also struggle to make Monday sessions, either because they are still travelling or because they are in political group meetings. Davies tells PublicServiceEurope.com
that he attends as many plenary sessions as possible - he has a 92 per cent attendance record - because he "wants to make a difference", unlike some other politicians who go only "to score points".
The plenary floor can give MEPs a platform for publicity back in their home country - as United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage knows very well. Attending plenary is also a matter of loyalty to one's colleagues, says Davies. "If I'm passionate about a subject, I would be pissed if no-one else from my group turned up to support me at the vote," he says. By the same token, Davies votes in support of his colleagues even if the subject matter is not close to his heart. According to VoteWatch Europe, he has voted 2,642 times out of a possible 3,070 plenary opportunities - an 86 per cent participation rate. At the other end of the spectrum, Eurosceptics tend to attend and vote less frequently.
For example, UK Independence Party member Godfrey Bloom
has the lowest statistics of any British MEP. He has attended the plenary frequently enough to secure his office allowance - 56 per cent of the time - but has participated in only 31 per cent of the roll-call votes. "Generally in UKIP, we go if there is something that we are voting on that is important to the UK; and also if we feel that our vote would count," Bloom tells PublicServiceEurope.com
. And UKIP opposed the financial transaction tax out of principle even though there was no chance of overturning it, he says. "It takes me nine hours to get to Strasbourg and I can generally find better ways of using my time," he says, such as constituency work and media appearances.
Many of the votes in Strasbourg are pointless, Bloom adds. "Would you go to vote on the harmonisation of tractor seats or windscreen wipers?" Infrequent voting costs Bloom financially, though this is not his main concern. "I am a retired investment economist and, to be frank, I don't need the money," he explains. The system of MEP allowances is heavily biased in favour of the Strasbourg assembly. If they really wanted to ditch the French seat, MEPs could show their displeasure by boycotting it. If the chamber were empty, member states would soon get the message that there was no point maintaining it. This is unlikely to happen however, as they would be biting off the hand that feeds them.
The €304 figure you quote as a 'daily bonus' for attendance at 50 per cent of plenary sessions is not accurate. Rather, the €304 figure is called the personal attendance allowance and is paid to a member for every day he/she signs an attendance register in the parliament. The payment covers accommodation (hotels, rent and so on), meals, taxis and other additional expenses a member might incur. Only if the member fails to turn up to 50 per cent of plenary sessions do they receive a financial penalty.
Also, Mr Bloom's comments are not entirely correct either. Most votes of the plenary are important and are in reference to subject matters like employment, education, transport, immigration and social affairs etc. Just because Mr Bloom and his political group most often lose their votes and do not fully participate in the functions of the parliament, that is their problem. Decisions are made by those who turn up.
Jonathan - Brussels, Belgium