The Tory press has revelled in allegations that Qatar has been bribing denizens of the European Parliament with suitcases full of cash, including the Greek MEP Eva Kaili (suitcases were the same means of delivery, incidentally, with which a senior Qatari politician allegedly gave €3m to King Charles’s charities in 2015).
“The EU has never looked more bankrupt,” declared a Daily Telegraph headline after the story (which has been denied by Kaili and Qatar) broke, with the columnist adding hyperbolically that “Brexit was the greatest victory for democracy in postwar British history”. A Daily Mail counterpart deplored, with similar hyperbole, “the sewers of sleaze that run through EU institutions”. A Times editorial observed rather more soberly: “Time and time again [the EU’s] institutions, and in particular a parliament whose purpose is to bestow upon its opaque and sprawling supranational structures a degree of popular legitimacy and scrutiny, have proven themselves corruptible.”
There’s a hefty amount of wilful blindness in these denunciations. Since when has our own government – its sovereignty so happily restored by Brexit – been such a paragon of virtue? What about Boris Johnson’s peerages for allies such as Evgeny Lebedev, and for Peter Cruddas and others who have made substantial donations to the Conservative Party, or David Cameron’s unseemly lobbying of minister friends on behalf of his paymaster, Lex Greensill? Nor should we forget that no less than 37 British MPs have enjoyed complimentary trips to Qatar over the past five years.
But the Tory commentators are on firmer ground when they point out that “unreconstructed Remainers refuse to accept that any continental institutions might be less than perfect” (the Daily Mail), or that “Brexit’s critics are strangely silent about the European Parliament scandal” (the Spectator). The news from Brussels certainly does appear to have embarrassed and muted the more progressive, Remain-supporting press, just as stories did a few years back about John Bercow, the Commons Speaker so beloved of Remainers, bullying his staff.
This is unnecessary. The Remainers’ case was never that the EU was perfect. On the contrary, many of us were deeply Eurosceptic. As a former Brussels correspondent of the Times, I had seen first-hand how wasteful, arrogant and inefficient its institutions could be.
Our case was that Britain was much better off in than out; that as a big, powerful member state with plenty of allies it should fight for reform from within; and that it would be entirely wrong – economically, politically and in every other way – to walk away from the greatest experiment in multinational cooperation that the world had ever seen.
We lost the 2016 referendum, of course. In the battle of the bumper stickers “Take Back Control” inevitably trumped “Stay and reform a flawed EU”. But six years on, as all those fabled Brexit benefits have so manifestly failed to appear, and as the costs of quitting the giant trading bloc across the Channel become ever more apparent, we feel sadly but amply vindicated.
Indeed, it was the Brexit zealots who had, before this present brouhaha in Brussels, fallen conspicuously silent.