As the EU corruption scandal unfolds, I cannot pretend to be shocked or surprised by the sordid details in media reports emerging from Brussels. I spent more than 20 years there as an MEP. In that time, I saw at first-hand the constant exposure to lobbyists of all types. They have big expense accounts; they treat MEPs like VIPs; and they are very effective at what they do.
Indeed, the only fact that has amazed me about this sleazy situation is the sheer efficiency and guile shown by the Belgian intelligence services in exposing it – up to and including the reported 1.5 million Euros found stashed following police raids during an investigation which implicates, among others, a vice-president of the parliament. I must also admit to a moment’s amusement that a number of the implicated parties appear to be socialists. Will the DNA of the EU ever change?
The cultural differences between what we in the UK define as acceptable among our political class and what other European countries are prepared to tolerate is astonishing. Our MPs can speak freely in the chamber of the House of Commons under parliamentary privilege. They can say what they want without fear of prosecution. Other than that, they are subject to the law just like everybody else; they have no advantage over the rest of us.
Compare this with Brussels, where MEPs enjoy immunity against prosecution in pursuance of their role as MEPs wherever they are, giving the sense of an “untouchable” status. The fact is that the EU bigwigs have constructed a body of politicians and bureaucrats who make up what is, in effect, a separate class. And in creating this elite, the EU panjandrums took their cue from the aristocracy of the world’s bureaucrats: the French.
I have had my own experience of just how protected French politicians can be. In 2004, a new European Commission was presented to MEPs for approval. In response, I gave my first speech as a group leader. In it, I questioned whether the French nominee was suitable. His name was Jacques Barrot. Some years before, he had been implicated in a party funding scandal and been given a suspended sentence for it. The reaction to my comments was like a bomb going off. Suddenly I was in trouble. The President of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, even asked whether I wanted my comments struck from the minutes of the parliament so that I would not face “legal consequences”. I refused.
The sin I had committed was my failure to understand that while Barrot – who died in 2014 – had indeed been convicted of embezzlement in a French court, he had been given an amnesty by President Chirac. Not only was Barrot pardoned but, under French law, his offence had been erased altogether. To mention that the prosecution had taken place was against the law. At the time the whole thing seemed to me to be too incredible to believe, but it was true.
The Brussels club, it seems to me, generally follows this culture and looks after its own. Woe betide any dissidents, though. In my case, any immunity I had in my capacity as an MEP was worthless. For many years, I was pursued by the authorities for misuse of public funds. Every time an investigation into me was launched, the British press knew about it before I did, meaning that my name was tarnished before I had even had a chance to respond. Each and every baseless allegation took up a huge amount of my time and resources. These allegations have even continued since Britain left the EU, with another large legal bill being incurred in 2021. Several of my UKIP colleagues have been subjected to similarly nightmarish experiences, especially after the 2016 referendum result.
My contempt for this dishonest system knows no bounds. I only hope that the Belgian law enforcement agencies will next conduct an audit of other parts of the system – especially the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. After all, that is where the real power to make laws and decide policy lies.