– European Commission spends millions on private jets, luxury holidays and cocktail parties (Telegraph, 01 Jun 2011):
The European Commission has spent more than £8 million on private jet travel, luxury holiday resorts and cocktail parties, an investigation has disclosed.
Commissioners travelled in limousines, stayed in five star hotels and splashed out on lavish gifts including Tiffany jewellery as their member states faced savage budget cuts and rising EU taxes.
An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism into spending by the EU executive has shown that more than €7.5m (£6.6m) was spent on private jet travel for commissioners between 2006 and 2010.
Baroness Ashton, the British EU foreign minister, came under fire when it was reported that she had demanded her own private jet less than 100 days into her new role in March last year.
Tens of thousands more was spent accommodating commissioners at luxury five star resorts in exotic locations such as Papua New Guinea, Ghana and Vietnam, the spending figures show.
The Commission also ran up a bill of more than €300,000 (£263,511) for lavish cocktail parties, including an event in Amsterdam costing €75,000, which was described as “a night filled with wonder like no other”.
It spent thousands hiring top orchestras to play at the exclusive parties, while guest speakers at its events were presented with expensive gifts including cufflinks, fountain pens and Tiffany jewellery.
Conservative ministers and MEPs last night reacted furiously to the disclosures, days after the Commission demanded a budget increase of 4.9 per cent, which would cost Britons €3 billion a year in “stealth taxes”.
David Lidington, the Europe Minister, said the figures proved the Commission must slash its own spending before its demands for a budget increase can be countenanced.
He said: “Taxpayers across Europe are facing tough decisions about their own housekeeping budgets and its time for the commission to look long and hard and its own spending priorities. Any evidence of extravagance and waste will damage the standing not only of the individual commissioners involved but also of the EU as a whole.
“What’s very clear is that the Commission can afford to make savings before it comes asking national governments for any extra money.”
Bill Cash, Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee in the House of Commons, demanded that the EU’s financial watchdog open a formal investigation into the spending.
He said: “Frankly I’m disgusted. The Commission acts like a medieval monarchy and this is taxpayers’ money which is quite clearly being squandered on an outrageous scale.
“This requires formal investigation and as chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee I will be calling upon the Court of Auditors to produce an official report.”
Figures obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and passed to The Daily Telegraph show that the Commission’s President, Jose Manuel Barroso, ran up a bill of €28,000 (£24,500) during a four-night stay at the New York Peninsula Hotel in September 2009.
Mr Barroso stayed at the five-star hotel, where suites cost €780 a night, with an entourage of eight assistants while attending the UN Climate Change Summit. The bill included the cost of hiring meeting rooms and equipment.
The hotel bill came to almost triple the limit of €275 per person per night for accommodation in New York set out in the Commission’s staff regulations.
When questioned over the bill, the Commission said that the overspend was considered reasonable due to inflated accommodation costs in New York during the UN General Assembly.
Commissioners and their families also holidayed at luxury resorts in Papua New Guinea and Ghana during 2009.
On one occasion, a delegation of 44 staff was flown to the five-star Palm Garden Resort in Vietnam for an event to “facilitate internal cooperation”.
On top of the £6.6m private jet bill, a further €118,000 was paid for limousines to chauffeur commissioners between official engagements.
Details of the extravagant spending is likely to spark public fury following the Commission’s proposals to levy more than £200 a year from the average British family in direct taxation from 2013.
Janusz Lewandowski, the European budget commissioner, made the demand for tax-raising powers on Tuesday.
Baroness Ashton infuriated British government ministers last month when she demanded an extra £23.5 million to run her diplomatic service, which would take her total budget to £427 million.
The EU foreign minister is the world’s highest paid female politician, earning £230,000 a year. Her demands for more cash were branded “ludicrous” by Mr Lidington last month.
A spokesman for Lady Ashton last night denied that she had requested her own private jet last year, but admitted that she is a frequent user of “air taxis” to destinations where commercial flights are not avaiable.
Martin Callanan, the leader of the Conservative group of MEPs, described the new spending revelations as “scandalous”.
“When the commission said it needs a five percent budget increase to ‘pay its bills’ we didn’t think it meant private jets, Tiffany jewellery and cocktail parties,” he said.
“This is exactly the sort of outrageous spending that needs to be slashed.”
Mats Persson, director of the Open Europe campaign group, said the latest disclosures about Commissioners’ spending would further sour the public mood towards the EU.
He said: “With the public mood in Europe turning increasingly hostile to the EU, the Commission would do itself a huge favour by putting an end to this kind of excessive spending. Revelations about EU waste have become almost routine, but that doesn’t make them anymore acceptable.”
The Commission said that the use of private jets, which it called “air taxis”, was only authorised under “exceptional circumstances” when commercial flights were not available.
A spokeswoman said that the bills for resorts in Papua New Guinea and Ghana were for training events attended by staff working in delegations in those countries.
She added: “The Amsterdam event featured renowned scientists, serious state of the art science activities and took place at the Dutch equivalent of the UK Science Museum as part of a Europe-wide initiative involving amongst others Oxford University and London’s Natural History Museum. The Commission’s finance for refreshments was not for cocktails but for coffee etc and amounted to less than 2 euro per participant.”