Neither the European Commission nor the European Parliament knows the cost of answering a question from an MEP. That is the disturbing conclusion from inquiries made by European Voice in response to a rapid rise in the number of questions submitted by MEPs to the European Commission.
While the number of questions asked of the European Commission by the European Parliament is growing at an exponential rate, the cost is unknown. Collectively, MEPs are now asking more than 12,000 questions per year, compared with 6,000 per year during the 2004-09 Parliament. But one question that the Commission conspicuously refuses to answer is: what is the cost of answering a Parliamentary question?
MEPs’ right to ask questions of the Commission was enshrined in the EU’s governing treaties at the creation of the Union. The treaties currently state that the Commission “shall reply orally or in writing to questions put to it by the European Parliament or its members”. But what has changed since the Treaty of Rome is the number of questions being asked.
In 1979, when the Parliament was first directly elected, there were 1,196 written questions to the Commission. In the early 1990s, the number of written questions was about 3,300 per year rising to about 4,000 per year at the end of the 1990s. It rose to about 6,000 per year during the 2004-09 Parliament. In 2011 it was twice that: MEPs put 12,094 questions. In the first two months of this year, MEPs put 2,447 questions.
In turn that has provoked grumbling, both in the Parliament and the Commission, about the resources spent on answering these questions. Unofficial estimates of the average cost to the Commission of answering a question range from €600 to €1,400. There would be additional costs to the Parliament. But neither the Parliament nor the Commission would confirm the accuracy of those estimates. Each said that they had not carried out a cost analysis.
If the lower estimate of €600 is accurate, it would mean that the Commission is spending €7.3m each year on answering MEPs’ questions. If the higher estimate of €1,400 is accurate, then the total cost is €16.9m per year. If the number and complexity of questions is now the main variable, then the total cost may have doubled since the 2004-09 Parliament.
The Commission is loath to be dragged into a debate about the costs, since it is obliged by the European Union’s governing treaties to answer questions put to it by MEPs, and can do little to escape those costs.
MEPs themselves have tried to obtain an estimate of the costs. In September 2010, Anne Jensen, a Danish Liberal, asked and was told: “It is difficult to try to determine an average cost per question.” The Commission argued that there were too many variables – the people and time needed to prepare, translate and obtain approval from the college of commissioners for draft answers depended on different Commission services working together, the need for in-depth research and the immediate availability of information.
MEPs are putting ever more questions to the European Commission, but neither the Parliament nor the Commission knows how much these questions cost. What makes a good parliamentary question?
Marianne Thyssen, a Belgian Christian Democrat, tried again in July 2011, and was told “a lot of money”. She was then referred back to the generalities of the answer to Jensen the previous year.
A spokeswoman for the Parliament said: “We do not for the time being have a central system to calculate the costs of handling questions to the Commisison”, adding that it would be “too time-consuming for the administration to start calculating the costs”.
What makes a good parliamentary question?
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