Matt Smith on Brexit Central: Financial sleaze and the abuse of taxpayers’ cash in Brussels is a reminder of why we voted to Leave

One of the reasons the British came out for Leave was the spectacle of EU officials and Commissioners lavishing taxpayers’ money on their own perks and fripperies.

Leave voters knew that for over two decades the European Commission had consistently failed annual audits by the EU’s own Court of Auditors.

They also knew the UK was a net loser in the EU’s fiscal merry-go-round, accounting for 12.5% of the EU’s budget without democratic oversight over how these vast sums were spent.

Many remembered Westminster’s parliamentary expenses scandal and how they used the 2010 General Election to evict some of the worst offenders. By contrast they had no mechanism for removing EU Commissioners or their officials.

For Leave voters, the referendum wasn’t just a chance to cock a snook at the EU’s cloistered elites. Brexit was their way of reaching up to tear down the rotten beam of corruption.

During the referendum, Vote Leave used the Commission’s Financial Transparency Service (FTS) to uncover how European Commission civil servants and EU employees use taxpayers’ money to finance luxury spending on – among other things – private jets, luxury hotels, chauffeur-driven limousines, resorts, cruises, golf clubs and even chocolate.

The FTS was devised to comply with the requirement ‘to make available, in an appropriate and timely manner, information on recipients’. Yet information about ‘routine administrative expenditure’ was logged under deliberately vague and misleading labels with no precise details of how the money was actually used, thereby frustrating investigation.

For example, within a single year (2014), EU officials spent €439,341 (£340,929) on the luxury private jet operator Luxaviation which they recorded under ‘Communication’, ‘Energy’ and ‘Language services’.

In the same year they spent €9,600 (£7,450) on the Jean Monnet and Altiero Spinelli dining rooms in Brussels entered under ‘Environment’, ‘Direct Research’, ‘Economic and Financial Affairs’.

Officials working on the failing Common Agricultural Policy spent €54,677 (£42,429) at the five-star Brisbane Stamford Hotel recording this as ‘Commission Policy and legal advice’.

And when officials responsible for the Commission’s ‘science and knowledge service’ spent €22,193 (£17,222) at the five star Shangri La Hotel in Singapore they called this ‘Direct Research’.

Swampy spending by EU Commissioners and officials is nothing new. In 2011 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism first uncovered spending on luxuries by the European Commission and discovered that then Commission President José Manuel Barroso had spent €249,000 (£221,610) on private jets at the time of the 2009 UN Convention on climate change. In the same year the Commission spent €300,000 (£267,000) on cocktail parties.

Then, a year after the European Union referendum, the EU finally disclosed details of the travel expenses of its 28 Commissioners to transparency campaigners Access Information Europe after their three-year battle with officialdom.

They found that in the first two months of 2016 the EU spent nearly half a million euros spiriting its Commissioners and their courtiers around the Eurasian landmass in luxury chartered jets otherwise known as “air taxis”.

In those two months alone, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spent €29,268 (£24,000) on a private flight for himself and nine others to Rome for a two-day trip. And foreign affairs supremo Federica Mogherini spent nearly €82,927 (£68,000) chartering an aircraft to fly to Baku in Azerbaijan.

The Commission says its “transparency policy is far-reaching and comprehensive”. Yet Access Information Europe Director Helen Darbishire described the process of obtaining these disclosures as “Kafkaesque” after the EU battled to resist disclosure on grounds of privacy and cost, claiming full disclosure would be an “excessive administrative burden”.

And in back in July, EUObserver reported that Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud office, was investigating a former member of the European Court of Auditors for allegedly misspending €500,000 (£445,000) on travel expenses and other items, despite the Court of Auditors existing to ensure the EU budget is properly spent.

As so often happens with expenses abuse, it is not only the initial wrongdoing that is scandalous, it is the covering-up and the spin that causes just as much controversy.

In 2014 the Commission deleted a chapter on EU institutions from its own ‘EU Anti-Corruption Report’ on the grounds that ‘it would be difficult to provide an objective self evaluation’.

And after the UK’s Brexit vote the EU created a €3 million war chest to “challenge Euroscepticism”. The fund supported 84 projects in 2017 across the EU including ten projects involving towns and cities in the UK with the intention of creating a “positive driver of European integration” and educating participants to “understand the cost of not being part of the EU”.

And EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has now said “press freedom also has its limits”. He will “not miss” the British press who “do not respect the human rights of political actors” and the Commission should have intervened in the referendum ensuring “the right questions would have entered the debate”.

Expenses abuse and cover-ups are symptomatic of the designedly anti-democratic and unaccountable nature of the EU institutions and the “wink-wink” culture they foster, as the European Court of Justice recently demonstrated by ruling MEPs’ allowances spending will remain secret because they are “a class of their own, a class of public officials that are not open to public scrutiny”.

Yet the problem of EU governance goes deeper than sleaze. Misleading record keeping, resistance to disclosure, the useless Court of Auditors and the EU’s ineffectual European Ombudsman are all features of a closed bureaucratic system institutionally hostile to external scrutiny and prone to bad decision-making.

As Marta Andreasen, the EU’s former Chief Accountant fired for whistleblowing over fraud and corruption wrote, EU governance is ‘lawless, corrupt, mistaken, undemocratic, bureaucratic, over-regulated and, ultimately, unworkable’.

The political toxicity of expenses abuse by EU Commissioners and officials should not be underestimated. The spectacle of EU elites feathering their nests exposes the Brussels ancien régime for what it is. And the avoidance of scrutiny signals they have is one rule for the EU’s elites and another for citizens of member nation states.

Despite Brexit and the EU’s omnicrisis, Brussels’ oblivious elites still patronise the Esimit Europa II, the EU’s thirty-metre long, forty-four foot high luxury super yacht.

Commissioned to promote ‘a common European identity’, the Esimit is the flagship for a European project that finds itself demanding a larger budget for a smaller Union.

The Esimit’s mission includes ‘endorsing the European Energy Concept’ but, because it is the EU, its main sponsor is Gazprom.

The EU’s ‘maxi yacht’ has a giant European Union flag for a sail which the EU preposterously claims is the only sporting symbol ‘all Europeans can recognise themselves in’, now that ‘Europeans finally have their sport team’.

Nothing captures the fin de siècle absurdity of the euro-elites and their Neronian self-indulgence than the Esimit’s slogan ‘All Europeans together on the same boat’.

Commission budget chief Gunther Oettinger said last week the UK “would still lose EU budget rebate if it decided to cancel Brexit”. Those who, despite this, still advocate a second referendum to nullify Brexit and would have us maintain vast contributions to the EU’s unaudited budget indefinitely, instead of a Brexit dividend for the NHS, would be wise to think about how the EU wastes taxpayers’ money pampering their failing elites and how this will play out for them politically.

As the EU’s governing class continues to rig the system in favour of its own interests, the political undergrowth across the EU is getting tindery. If they are not careful Brussels’ elites will turn anti-corruption currents into one of the four populist horsemen of the federalists’ apocalypse.