Champagne populists? Far-right MEPs face inquiry into expenses

Jon Henley
The budget control committee report said the unjustified expenses included wines at €81 a bottle. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rail as they might against Europe being a waste of taxpayers’ money, it seems Europe’s far-right populists are not above wasting some of it themselves.

Senior MEPs will discuss next week claims that the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group received €427,000 in “unreasonable” and “noncompliant” expenses for 2016, including for €400-a-head meals and a total of 234 bottles of champagne.

The parliament’s budget control committee recommended in March that the group, made up of MEPs mainly from France’s far-right Front National, Italy’s League, Austria’s Freedom party and the Dutch Party for Freedom, must be made to repay the money.

The committee’s report said the sum was made up of €38,889 of expenses that could not be justified, and €388,278 which violated EU tendering rules. It included Christmas presents worth more than €100 each and wines at €81 a bottle.

The group’s expenditure was “unacceptable”, the committee’s chair, Ingeborg Grässle, told Agence France-Presse. The expenses were “neither reasonable nor compatible with the principles of sound financial management”.

Legitimate parliamentary expenses can be claimed for staff, translators, office supplies, phone and internet costs as well as for some entertainment, but strict conditions must be observed, which the ENF “repeatedly disregarded”, the committee said.

The ENF’s co-chair, the Front National MEP Nicolas Bay, has rejected the allegations, saying the group had not “deliberately ignored the regulations” and the problem arose because the rules for public tenders were not easy to interpret.

The leaders of the European parliament’s political groups are due to discuss the issue at a meeting on Monday amid calls for it to be debated in plenary session and the ENF’s repeated insistence that it has done nothing wrong.

Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader, is under investigation in France over her party’s European expenses. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

The Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, has already been placed under formal investigation in France over allegations that her party illegally claimed millions of euros from the European parliament to pay for France-based staff.

That case was also triggered by a complaint from the European parliament stemming from the same investigation into the ENF’s alleged abuse of EU funds, accusing the Front National of wholesale fraud.

The inquiry by the European parliament watchdog established that between 2011 and 2012, Le Pen had illicitly paid party staff in France using money that should only be used for MEPs to pay assistants for legislative tasks.

Le Pen is one of 17 Front National MEPs – along with her estranged father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – who are being investigated over salaries paid to about 40 parliamentary assistants. All have denied any wrongdoing.