There has been an angry reaction from the UK Independence Party to the accusation that money received from the European Parliament is being been siphoned off and used for domestic political purposes. This accusation – it should be stressed – has not been proven. There is a leaked email from a wealthy Ukip donor, Alan Bown, a member of the party’s national executive, demanding that its MEPs contribute more to party funds, or run the risk of being blackballed, so that they would not be allowed to stand as Ukip candidates again. Its own MEPs have protested that this is an inducement to break the rules. More seriously, a former Ukip press officer claims that he was employed to promote the party in the UK, but that his salary was paid by Europe of Freedom and Democracy, a political group in the European Parliament of which Ukip is one component.
The rules are not difficult to understand. MEPs are paid a salary of around £79,000 a year. There would be no Ukip MEPs without the party’s brand name and its election machine. Ukip may well feel that its sitting MEPs should contribute to the cost of running the party, and is within its rights to ask them for a contribution from their generous salaries. MEPs also receive lavish allowances to run their political offices, and provided they keep to certain rules, they are allowed to plough some of that money into political activity in their constituencies.
The EFD group has no independent income. It is subsidised by the European Parliament. The group can legitimately employ someone to keep tabs on British political developments on its behalf, but for the EFD to employ people in London to work on Ukip’s domestic campaigning would be an abuse of public money. It is for the European Parliament’s governing bureau to decide if there is a case for Ukip to answer.
Ukip insists that the party has followed the rules and that the accusations levelled at it are a “smear campaign” by pro-EU journalists and politicians alarmed by opinion polls showing that the anti-Europe ticket is more popular than any fourth party has been since the collapse of the SDP in the 1980s. Its partisans would even claim that it is not the fourth party any more, because it is higher in the polls than the Liberal Democrats and is likely to wrestle with Labour for first place in May’s European elections.
Even assuming that it is true that Ukip has meticulously observed the rules about what can and cannot be used for party purposes, there is an enduring irony that this little party benefits so disproportionately from having elected representatives in the European Parliament, an institution which Nigel Farage and his colleagues despise, which was created by the EU from which it proposes that the UK should immediately withdraw.
Its situation is not unique. In the UK Parliament, you find SNP MPs who are actively working to get Scotland out of the UK. Sinn Fein has won four seats in a Parliament whose legitimacy it does not recognise, though you do not see its MPs in the Parliament and they do not draw MPs’ salaries. But neither the SNP nor Sinn Fein need their MPs as badly as Ukip needs its MEPs. Ukip is a party that feeds off an institution it despises.