European Union member states are trying this week to agree on a package that would end pay discrepancies for members of the European Parliament. EU governments hope equal pay will stop members of the Europe-wide legislature from topping off their salaries with generous travel benefits.
The European Parliament has had a hard time living down its image as a big spender for its 732 members.
A generous perks system allows them to claim the highest air fare for travel between the parliament's two seats in Brussels and the French city of Strasbourg, even if they actually fly on budget airlines, or travel by car. Since they do not need to submit receipts, they get to pocket the difference. And the taxpayer ends up footing the bill.
Two weeks ago, the euro-legislators turned down a proposal to reform the travel expense system because members who are paid low salaries, especially those from the newer member states of Central and Eastern Europe, say they cannot live without the extra income from their travel allowances.
So, now, the government of Luxembourg, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, has proposed that all members of the European Parliament receive the same salary. It is asking the other 24 EU governments to support the plan.
Currently, Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, as they are called, earn the same salary that members of their countries' national parliaments receive. And there are huge discrepancies.
For instance, Italian MEPs are paid nearly $15,000 a month, whereas their counterparts from the three Baltic states earn only one-tenth that amount.
The Luxembourg proposal would harmonize those salaries at about $9,000 a month. Members from the newer EU members would receive a lower salary to start with, but it would gradually rise.
Luxembourg hopes that, with equal pay, European legislators would stop padding their salaries with tens of thousands of dollars every year in travel expenses. The move comes as voter skepticism about the European Union is growing and the excessive pay and perks of legislators contrast with fiscal belt-tightening across Europe.
Caroline Lucas, a British MEP who belongs to the Green Party, says it is time to change the pay and perks system if the European parliament wants to repair its tarnished image among voters.
"I think that all MEPs are now aware that, in a sense, our credibility, our authority, is being utterly undermined for as long as this unexplained expenses system carries on. And I think all MEPs are affected by that," said Ms. Lucas.
Even if governments all agree to the Luxembourg proposal, the final word will be up to the lawmakers themselves. And it is not difficult to imagine that an Italian MEP will be uncomfortable earning less than one of his colleagues in the Italian parliament. At the same time, politicians in a country like Lithuania would find it hard to accept that a Lithuanian MEP is paid vastly more than they are.
Previous efforts to reform the system of salaries and expenses have come to nothing. But Ms. Lucas and other legislators say that, if the European parliament is to be seen as something more than a gravy train, it must put its own financial house in order.