The debate about expenses in the House of Commons, not normally an issue that might fall within the scope of a federalist blog, has shone light on a different issue that does. How should we speak about the question of expenses?
Gordon Brown has proposed that the allowance paid to MPs for their second home should be replaced with an attendance allowance, which is the approach used by other parliaments including the European Parliament, for example. There has been opposition voiced to this proposal, as is perfectly fine, but the tone of this opposition is rather different.
In the Financial Times, for example, Liberal Democrat leader (and former MEP) Nick Clegg is reported as saying that this would “bring the Brussels gravy train to Westminster”. Whatever one might think about the system used in the British parliament, I don’t think that is the right language to use about the EP.
The existence of a so-called gravy train is a matter of faith for many opponents of the EU. The European institutions are closed circle accessible only to a few, with fat salaries and expenses paid out to the lucky beneficiaries. It all adds to the notion of a conspiracy against the general public.
The truth is of course very different, but perhaps Nick Clegg finds it easier to say the things that are popular than the things that are correct.
And where does this leave the debate about Europe in Britain?
By pandering to a relatively gentle euroscepticism, does Nick Clegg become a more credible advocate of the EU as a whole or does he in fact acquiesce in a move in the centre of gravity of the debate about Europe in a eurosceptic direction. If the anti-European caricature of a gravy train becomes established in the public mind, I don’t believe that will satisfy the opponents of the EU as having achieved enough, but rather will fuel their desire for more.
The pro-European case has the facts on its side, and needs to stick to them. Exaggeration in any direction is only going to lead to trouble. We must not overclaim, but we do our case no favours by underclaiming, either.
The real traffic problem, if I may call it that, is not that politicians are riding a European gravy train but when they clamber aboard a eurosceptic bandwagon.