German MPs and the politics of fountain pens

Any Brits reading German newspapers this week may well have felt a strange sense of déjà vu. Germany has its very own parliamentary expenses drama to deal with, and it has echoes of the 2008 episode that shook the UK’s political establishment. No matter how the so-called ‘Montblanc Affair’ pans out, a number of former and current parliamentarians (‘MdBs’) have some explaining to do. SCSC Director Dan Hough explains.

August is generally a quiet time for news. The Germans tend to call it the ‘Sommerloch’ (literally the ‘Summer Hole’) where little of note happens. Given some of the policy challenges that Germany currently faces (internal security, refugee integration, dealing with Brexit, the latent Eurocrisis) the summer of 2016 was never likely to be quite as quiet as usual, but a left-field drama surrounding fountain pains is threatening to leave a lot of former and current parliamentarians red-faced.

The affair is actually nothing new. Indeed, rumours of inappropriate use of parliamentary expense accounts surfaced back in 2009. But seven years later and these rumours have taken on new impetus. So what is going on?

The politics of stationary (!)
The affair centres around expenditure on, of all things, stationary. Hardly the stuff of which high profile dramas are normally made. The background is that German MdBs have a yearly budget of €12,000 with which they can kit out their (and their assistants’) offices. That money gets spent on everything from paper to mobile phones … and pens.

In some cases, Montblanc pens. For those not aware of the finer points of the stationary art, Montblanc pens do not come cheap. Indeed, they generally run in to the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Euro. Until March 2010, and to the surprise of many Germans, MdBs were perfectly entitled to splash out on luxury fountain pens such as these; the only thing they couldn’t do was spend more than the stipulated €12,000 per annum on all stationary combined. Rumours that MdBs and/or people in their offices were gaming the system by acquiring expensive pens and, say, giving them as Christmas presents were rife.

The mystery list
The affair had lost much of its salience over time, largely as no one knew who the MdBs concerned were. The federal parliament refused to publish more details about these cases than it had to by law – and that law said that as long as the overall amount spent was less than the maximum then there was, as the saying goes, nothing to see here. By August 2016 the Bild Zeitung, Germany’s most widely-read newspaper, was upping the ante. It had managed to get hold of a list (see here) – it refused to say where from – that revealed the names of 116 MdBs who’d acquired Montblanc pens. And, the Bild was quick to say that the list wasn’t complete and that there could subsequently be more revelations to come.

The list included politicians from all parties. High profile names such as the then home secretary, Otto Schily (SPD), were on there, as were two former General Secretaries of Angela Merkel’s CDU; Ronald Pofalla and Laurenz Meyer. Indeed, Mayer appeared to have bought 14 Montblanc pens in one 10 month period. Even the anti-capitalist Left Party wasn’t exempt; Diana Golze, then MdB and currently social minister in the eastern state of Brandenburg, was on there, too.

The party politics of scandal
The German commentariat has unsurprisingly been up in arms about MdBs splashing out on these luxury items. But, much as in the UK in 2008, parliamentarians have been careful not to break the rules. As noted above, as long as they (i) spend their money on items officially sanctioned by parliament and (ii) their spending doesn’t exceed 12K in total, they are in the clear.

In terms of the first of those points, there has been further intrigue. The Bundestag publishes a catalogue of stationary items that MdBs are free to purchase. MdBs (or more likely their assistants) order from that catalogue and parliamentary authorities pay the bill. Montblanc pens were included. MdBs are subsequently not only spending within the prescribed limit, but they are buying products that the authorities themselves prescribe (or, prescribed at the time, at least).

There may nonetheless be more to this stationary catalogue than meets the eye. Indeed, it might well play a role in explaining how the list of miscreants came to light. The company that until mid-summer 2016 provided the stationary, Bürofa, got in to a dispute with the parliamentary authorities over the costs it was charging to provide the goods. Andrea-Grigor Siewert, the company’s owner, claimed that demands to cut prices were out of order; indeed, if Bürofa did as the parliamentary authorities wanted it’d be forced in to bankruptcy.

Whether those claims are true remains a moot point. But one thing is clear. Siewart is a member of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a new, right-wing party that is causing quite a stir in Germany. Indeed, he’s a former treasurer of the party in the Berlin district of Pankow. Claims that his political allegiances have cost the company the contract have not been slow in forthcoming.

One thing Bürofa does do, however, is possess a list of to whom it has provided which products. Parliament has shredded all of its information in this regard (it was only legally required to keep it for five years) but Bürofa hasn’t; by law, it needs to keep hold of all of its files for ten years. Might that be the source of the MdBs who’ve splashed out? Siewart certainly hasn’t denied it.

The challenge of ‘legal corruption’
Even though the ‘Montblanc Affair’ has been ongoing for the best part of seven years, it still has some life in it. Parliamentarians will not find it easy explaining how they came to spend thousands of Euro on pens when there are clearly plenty of other causes in need of attention (and money). The politics of this looks bad, no matter where you are on the political spectrum.

It is also an interesting case from a corruption perspective. Defining corruption is a task fraught with difficulty. Traditionally viewed as the abuse of a public role for private gain, the real world nonetheless illustrates that notions of ‘abuse’ and even ‘public roles’ and indeed ‘private gain’ are contested. This is particularly so when parliamentarians shape the rules that they themselves have to abide by. Put another way, rational actors are unlikely to craft rules that they know they are going to go on and break.

In terms the affairs of parliamentarians, the way round this has to centre around external oversight. Post-2008 the UK responded by creating the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). That body was given “the remit and powers to introduce independent regulation of MPs’ business costs and expenses and, subsequently, pay and pensions”. IPSA has not been without its critics, but it does at least mean that parliamentarians no longer regulate their own financial affairs. Germany might well need to think about doing something similar in the future.