Eurosceptics pour scorn on ‘phantom MEPs’

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A European Parliament decision to grant observer status – and full pay – to 18 of its incoming members in the next legislature has been ridiculed by British Eurosceptics, as the MEPs risk being sent home after two years if the Lisbon Treaty is rejected.

Under the agreement, the European Parliament will take on board 18 MEPs without voting rights and grant them full powers as soon as the Lisbon Treaty enters into force. 

Irish voters are due to vote on the treaty in October, with latest polls showing that the ‘yes’ camp may win by a comfortable margin (EURACTIV 20/04/09). 

Nigel Farage, an MEP who leads the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party, tried to build on the expenses scandal in Great Britain (EURACTIV 15/05/09) by denouncing the deal. “Welcome to virtual politics,” he said. “This has to be the political expenses scandal to end all expenses scandals.” 

“The perfect politician for today’s elite is one that takes wages and does no work at all,” Farage added. 

Richard Corbett, the Labour MEP who helped draft the agreement, defended the arrangement. “This is straightforward and there is no need to make a fuss,” he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper. “They can do all the work of an MEP except taking part in votes. This is a way of making a smooth transition and has been done before.” 

The practice of granting observer status to MEPs is not new, and has been used recently when new countries joined the EU. Typically, observer MEPs are sent to Brussels to learn about their new job after their countries have signed their EU accession treaty. They only become full members of Parliament on the actual accession date. Until now, the practice has been commended as very useful. 

According to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, the 18 MEPs will be paid more than £76,000 (86,460 euros) a year, with staff and office allowances worth £210,000 (238,900 euros), “to do no work for two years”. 

In fact, it is difficult to estimate how long MEPs will have to wait before being granted full rights, if ever. Croatia’s EU negotiations are currently blocked by a dispute with Slovenia over maritime borders, and the signature of the accession treaty is not anticipated at the moment (EURACTIV 24/04/09). 

Iceland is poised to apply for EU membership in July (EURACTIV 27/04/09). The small Nordic country is already considered by some to have overtaken Croatia, as its accession negotiations are not expected to take long (EURACTIV 21/11/08). 

Spain pushes for early signature 

In a further development, Spain is now asking for a separate protocol to accommodate Ireland, to be signed by EU leaders at their next summit in Brussels on 18-19 June. 

“We intend to put forward a text at the June Council which says that the extra 18 MEPs from 12 countries that are included in the terms of the Lisbon Treaty should take their seats as soon as the Lisbon Treaty enters into force,” Diego López Garrido, Spain’s minister of state for European affairs, is quoted as saying in the Irish Times. 

However, the daily notes that some member states such as Britain may oppose such a move, as it would reopen the Lisbon debate in their national parliaments. A general election is due in Britain by next spring at the latest. 

One of the last decisions of the present European Parliament was to adopt, on 6 May, a decision to bridge the difference in the number of MEPs between the provisions of the current Nice Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty, should it come into effect. 

The Nice Treaty provides for 736 MEPs, while the Lisbon Treaty foresees 754 MEPs until 2014 and 751 thereafter. A report by Socialist MEP Richard Corbett (UK, Labour) adopted in plenary, provides for granting the outstanding 18 MEPs observer status until the Lisbon Treaty becomes effective. 

However, even in the most optimistic scenario, this would not be the end of the procedure, as the Lisbon Treaty would become effective only after additional texts are ratified by all member countries. 

The additional texts are due to give Ireland guarantees on certain issues in return for a revote this autumn (EURACTIV 12/12/08). But they will only become effective by adding a protocol to the EU treaties, possibly with Croatia's accession treaty. 

Spain is particularly anxious to see the additional MEPs take their seats, because it will be allocated four of the 18 extra seats. 

France, Sweden, Austria, Britain, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovenia and Malta would also receive more MEPs under the Lisbon Treaty. 

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