Karen Coleman: Beware of No campaigners with agendas of their own
ONE of the more sinister aspects of the fiscal treaty campaign has been the involvement of Eurosceptic MEPs who've come over here to spout their anti-EU rhetoric. Their anti-treaty crusades have little to do with what's best for Ireland but predominantly they are about the pursuit of their own anti-EU agendas.
The involvement of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is particularly egregious. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is an English MEP who campaigned here against the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. Now he's urging us to vote No to the fiscal treaty.
A slight, dapper man, Mr Farage regularly indulges his anti-EU sentiments in the European Parliament with his cutting and frequently entertaining digs at the EU and its officials. Mr Farage and the rest of UKIP's members passionately believe Britain should leave the EU. When they sit in the European Parliament, they look like isolated little Englanders with their Union Jack flags sitting on their desks in a kind of childish defiance of European unity.
Now, there's plenty wrong with the EU at the moment. As I have said before in this column, EU leaders are failing to tackle the enormous political and economic challenges we face. Their dithering and procrastination is endangering the stability of Europe. But a further fragmentation of the EU's waning community spirit will not serve us well. UKIP's jingoistic isolationism thrives on that fragmentation.
I personally experienced a more aggressive side of UKIP last Wednesday when I interviewed Mr Farage in his offices in the European Parliament.
When I knocked on his door, a man holding a pipe in his hand brought me into a room thick with the stench of tobacco smoke. The European Parliament has a strict no smoking policy, but that rule is apparently ignored in Mr Farage's demesne.
Mr Farage himself was sitting at his desk with a pile of papers in front of him, which included a printout of the 'Donegal Democrat'. I suspected it contained references to a statement made in the European Parliament the previous day by the Fianna Fail MEP Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher.
Mr Gallagher had declared that Mr Farage's involvement in the anti-treaty campaign was a good thing for the Yes side. The Donegal MEP believes that Irish voters strongly dislike foreigners like Mr Farage telling them how to vote.
During our interview, one of UKIP's fixers entered the room and sat down opposite us. He got aggressive when I pressed Mr Farage on the amount of money they were spending on their No campaign in Ireland.
The money topic came up after Mr Farage had boasted about how they were distributing their anti-treaty leaflets to every household in Ireland. When I asked him how much it was costing to print and distribute them, he inadvertently blurted out that it was around €200,000. I was shocked at the high figure and I pressed him further on it. At that stage, his fixer got aggressive and he threatened to pull the interview.
"Karen, if you continue on this f****** line we'll just f****** wrap up and go, all right?" he warned me.
Then he started preaching to me about a reputation to keep, as if somehow I was compromising my journalistic integrity by legitimately enquiring about the amount of money they were spending on their anti-treaty campaign.
It was a nasty encounter.
The money for the Eurosceptics' campaign comes from an EU information fund which can be legitimately accessed by the European Parliament's political groups. UKIP is a member of the Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, which has 34 members, including 10 from UKIP. Another nine come from Italy's Northern League party, which has been clouded in controversy recently after its founder Umberto Bossi resigned amid allegations that he had used taxpayers' money for perks for himself and his family. Mr Bossi has reportedly described the EU as a nest of communist bankers and freemasons. Another EFD member is the Finnish MEP Sampo Terho, who belongs to the populist right-wing True Finns party.
Each parliamentary group is entitled to funding from the EU's information budget for the likes of referendums, so there is nothing wrong with the EFD accessing that fund for their anti-treaty campaign in Ireland. The Irish MEPs are also using EU information money, through their parliamentary groups, for their own fiscal treaty campaigns. But there isn't a single Irish MEP in the EFD group -- and their €200,000 spend on their No campaign is significant.
And the bandwagon of anti-treaty Eurosceptics visiting Ireland continues. On Sunday, another British MEP begins a road trip here with a posse of some 20 followers and advisers. Nikki Sinclaire used to be with UKIP, but now she's an Independent MEP representing the West Midlands. Last February she was arrested on suspicion of misusing European Parliamentary allowances and expenses. In an interview last week, Ms Sinclaire told me the allegations were completely unfounded and made by a disgruntled ex-employee.
She told me she plans to travel around Ireland in a people-carrier festooned with balloons and posters which have a big cartoon of Angela Merkel with a warning not to become her puppet. Ms Sinclaire will also distribute anti-treaty leaflets to Irish voters. Her road trip is also being funded by the EU.
Ironically, the involvement of the Eurosceptics in this referendum may do more harm than good to the No campaign. Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher has a point when he says that Irish voters don't like foreigners coming here preaching to them about how they should vote.
Now, of course we've had droves of pro-treaty politicians and eurocrats who've descended on us over the years to encourage us to vote Yes to treaties such as Nice and Lisbon. But there's something particularly disturbing about the involvement of UKIP in this referendum campaign.
As I said previously, their anti-treaty crusades have little to do with what's best for Ireland. Their main agenda is to take Britain out of the EU. That would definitely not be good for Ireland.