MEANWHILE IN BRUSSELS...
Tony Blair's referendum announcement has understandably driven other European stories off the news pages. But, now that we know we shall have the chance to vote, it is worth standing back and taking a look at how the EU actually works. After all, there is no better way to judge an institution than by its record.
Here, then, are three separate items which, in a quieter week, might have received rather more media attention. Considering them collectively, we can infer a good deal about how Brussels operates.
First, there is the amazing case of Hans-Peter Tillach. Mr Tillach is a respected German investigative reporter, who has been working for some time on the Eurostat affair. Diligent readers of these bulletins will know that Eurostat is at the centre of gargantuan corruption allegations, involving the apparent loss of millions of euros from Commission accounts.
Last week, Mr Tillach's flat was raided by the Belgian police. He was taken into custody and his notebooks, files telephone and computer seized. He was denied a lawyer and questioned for ten hours. Even his private bank statements were impounded.
Needless to say, no such treatment has been meted out to the accused fraudsters. In the looking-glass world of Brussels, it is those investigating sleaze who are harassed and bullied. A clear message has been sent out to the entire press corps. Stick to copying out Commission press releases and you'll be well looked after. Make trouble and you'll end up in a police cell.
Next, consider the case of an Austrian MEP, confusingly called Hans-Peter Martin. Mr Martin recently scandalised the European Parliament by revealing that he had been keeping a record of which Euro-MPs signed the daily attendance register and when. On top of all their other perks, MEPs are entitled to €250 a day simply for being on parliamentary business, whether in Brussels or on an official visit. To claim it, they must sign in.
Longer-standing readers may be thinking that, next to some of our expenses, this is pretty small beer. None the less, Mr Martin had noticed that a number of MEPs were in the habit of arriving late at night, signing on, and then signing on again in the early morning on their way to the airport. It struck him as unreasonable that so many people should be clocking in when they were plainly not attending meetings.
Needless to say, MEPs saw it rather differently. Mr Martin has made himself the most unpopular man in Brussels since... well, since my own article about MEPs' expenses in The Daily Telegraph. One Labour MEP even knocked him over on his way out of the room where the central register is kept.
Finally, my friends, contemplate the strange case of the Commission censure vote. I and a group of MEPs had put down a mildly critical motion, bemoaning the Commission's failure to get to grips with the Eurostat scandal. Our motion never had the slightest chance of success: the federalists in the big groups were bound to vote it down. But, rather than accepting this mildest of rebukes, Commissioners and the leaders of the big groups went into overdrive, menacing and cajoling anyone who had signed. Some MEPs were threatened with de-selection as candidates if they kept their names on the motion. In the event, around 30 people removed their signatures, although there were just enough of us left to force the motion to be debated.
What all these incidents have in common is the EU's utter inability to accept reproach. In each of the three cases, criticism was coming from broadly pro-European quarters. Hans-Peter Tillach is a paid-up Europhile. Hans-Peter Martin might conceivably qualify as a sceptic by Austrian standards, but would be a Euro-fanatic by anyone else's. And, while many of the signatories of the censure motion were established troublemakers like me, a fair number were principled Euro-zealots who were angry that continuing corruption is jeopardising the federalist project.
Yet in every case, the establishment reacted to the criticism by ad hominem attacks. When Mr Tillach addressed a press conference, he was heckled by a Danish MEP who told him: "Don't give any more ammunition to the anti-Europeans or you will lose all credibility". Note the use of the word "anti-Europeans". In Brussels, any criticism of the system, even on grounds of financial probity, is taken as proof that you secretly hate foreigners.
This is, of course, a very reassuring thing for Europhiles to think. Someone is attacking the Common Agricultural Policy? It shows that he must be racist! A newspaper says that the Commission needs reform? It obviously has a xenophobic agenda! By dismissing all their critics in this way, Eurocrats are able to avoid self-scrutiny.
And, of course, they can always buy themselves more favourable coverage from other sources. Several Brussels correspondents are prepared to boost their salaries by accepting positions as editors of EU-funded newsletters, consultants on media issues and so on. On top of which, the Commission often funds the media directly.
If you've stayed in a hotel in Europe recently, you will probably have come across a channel called "Euronews". It is a perfectly respectable news station, available in six languages. In general, its reports are measured and disinterested. But, when it reports on the EU, all pretence at impartiality goes out of the window, and we are treated to Soviet-type items about grateful workers getting higher standards thanks to the Commission.
I found such items hard to reconcile with the channel's claim to be "totally independent", so I put down a question asking the Commission whether they gave it any money and, if so, how Euronews could call itself independent. The reply I got from Romano Prodi was beyond parody. He did give it subsidies, he admitted, but such grants "in no way restrict the editorial freedom of the beneficiary, who must, however, respect the image of the European institutions and the raison d'être and general objectives of the Union".
Accustomed to such coverage, Eurocrats simply do not know how to handle criticism. They are so used to getting their way that, on the rare occasions that they are checked, they react like spoilt children.
These, remember, are the people to whom we are being invited to entrust with a large measure of our governance under the new constitution. It's worth bearing in mind.