Magazine article The Spectator

They Have Ways of Making You Shut Up

Magazine article The Spectator

They Have Ways of Making You Shut Up

Article excerpt

Brussels

Tony Blair's referendum announcement has understandably crowded 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 considering how the EU actually works. Before handing over any new powers, let us look at what Brussels is doing with the powers it already has.

Contemplate, then, the case of Hans-Martin Tillack. Mr Tillack is a respected German reporter who has written extensively about the Eurostat scandal. This convoluted affair really deserves a column to itself but, briefly, it involves allegations that millions of euros have been diverted from the budget by Commission officials. More recently, Mr Tillack had started to investigate the broader failure of EU authorities to act on tip-offs. It was this that triggered the reaction. Last month police swooped on his flat. He was questioned for ten hours without a lawyer, while his laptop, files and address book were confiscated. Even his private bank statements were ransacked.

The raid was ordered by Olaf, the EU's anti-corruption unit. Needless to say, no such treatment has been meted out to the alleged fraudsters. In the looking-glass world of Brussels, it is those exposing sleaze, rather than those engaging in it, who find themselves in police custody. Mr Tillack was implausibly accused of having procured some of his papers by bribery. No formal charges have been brought, and he is now planning to sue. In the meantime, though, the notes he had built up over five years of meticulous work have been seized and his sources put at risk.

The lack of interest in this incident is bewildering. Journalists, after all, are usually exercised by the mistreatment of other journalists. When similar things happen in Zimbabwe, they are the subject of stern editorials. Yet here is the EU intimidating its critics with all the crudeness of a tinpot dictatorship. A message is being semaphored to the Brussels press corps: stick to copying out the Commission's press releases and you'll be looked after; make a nuisance of yourself and you'll regret it. As the EU correspondent of a British newspaper told me mopily last week, 'If they can do this to a German Europhile and get away with it, people like me might as well pack up and go home.'

Once again the EU has shown itself to be unable to accept criticism, even when it comes from broadly pro-European quarters. Like the recent whistleblowers Paul van Buitenen and Marta Andreasen, Mr Tillack has been careful to confine his critique to the issue of financial impropriety. 'I believe that the EU must be closer to the citizen,' says Mr Tillack with ponderous Teutonic wit, 'but when the police dragged me out of my apartment, I felt that it was getting too close to this citizen!' Yet, as he has now discovered, even Europhiles can become enemies of the state. To the EU apparat, someone like Mr Tillack is what Lenin would have called Objectively counter-revolutionary': he may not be acting from malice, but he must be squashed all the same.

At a meeting in the European Parliament shortly after his release, Mr Tillack was heckled by angry MEPs who told him not to give any more ammunition to the anti-Europeans. Ah yes, the anti-Europeans: a useful phrase to cover anyone with the slightest qualms about how the EU operates. Someone says that there is too much waste in the structural funds? Well he would, wouldn't he: he's a bigot. A newspaper is calling for the CAP to be scrapped? …

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