Commissioners and MEPs can share the pain
Maroš Šefcovic the European commissioner for administration, has a credibility problem as he proposes to change the pay and pensions of staff working in the European Union institutions.
In theory, Šefcovic is acting on behalf of the Commission, for whom he will go into negotiations with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. There is no doubt that he acts for the college of commissioners, but a general assembly of staff from the various institutions (only a few hundred out of several thousand) were clearly sceptical about his right to speak for them. One pointed out that Šefcovic, before he became a commissioner in February 2010, belonged to the Council of Ministers, as permanent representative of Slovakia to the EU. The complaint of the staff unions is that Šefcovic is already too sensitive to the demands of some national governments that spending on the pay and pensions of EU staff should be cut back.
The commissioner’s credibility problem is compounded because most of the measures that Šefcovic is proposing to restrain spending on staff pay and pensions will not affect him or his fellow-commissioners. Their pay and allowances are set by the Council of Ministers. So, while Šefcovic is ready to embrace the argument of the national governments that the EU institutions must share in the pain that is being inflicted on national administrations (where redundancies and pay cuts have become common), the pain is to be visited on his staff but not on the college of commissioners.
Fortunately for Šefcovic, this credibility problem is easily remedied. The Council of Ministers can take the initiative to reduce the remuneration of European commissioners. The salary is very generous; the accompanying allowances – including those paid after a commissioner has left office – and the pension are also very generous. There is no risk of a recruitment problem if the emoluments are reduced slightly.
This will do little to improve public finances across the EU, or even to reduce the EU’s administration bill. But it would dispose of the complaint that Šefcovic and his fellow commissioners are only inflicting pain on others, not on themselves.
The self-flagellation should not be confined to the European Commission. The European Parliament too should be required to share in the sacrifices. Their allowances have been increased only recently, with disregard bordering on contempt for the climate of austerity elsewhere.
Before they presume to vote on reducing the pay and allowances of their staff – in the Parliament and in the Commission, they should put themselves on slightly higher moral ground.
The MEPs should take no great pride in approving a revised code of conduct next week – one which will require a more detailed declaration of their sources of income beyond the generous MEP’s salary and allowances. The revision is long overdue – and, sadly, has come about only because of egregious scandals. MEPs have been allowed for too long to get away with the sketchiest details as to how they leverage their political status into more money.
Their failure to come clean is not surprising. Greed and self-interest tend to get in the way of transparency, and they cloud judgement about pay and perks. Only this week an inquiry into high pay in the UK detailed some scandalous failures in the corporate world, where bosses have given themselves rewards utterly disproportionate to their performance and to the salaries of their staff.
The EU institutions start from a better position than the corporate world: there is much greater transparency; salary scales and the size of allowances are published; and the haze over MEPs’ extra earnings is not the norm. This transparency permits us to see that neither European commissioners nor MEPs are underpaid: so, if EU staff are to share the pain, then so should their political masters.