Christopher Booker's Notebook
Malta rally draws 50,000 to oppose EU VAT on food coming soon Trend follows Brussels ways Not quite, minister
I n Malta last Sunday upwards of 50,000 opponents of Malta's bid to join the European Union - one in seven of the population - jammed the streets of Marsa, near Valetta, for the opening rally of a referendum campaign which promises to give the EU an almighty snub (an equivalent turnout in Britain would be eight million).
Although the ruling Nationalist Party wants Malta to lead the way among the 10 countries the EU hopes will vote to join by 2004, it is fiercely contested by the opposition Labour Party. Even the Brussels commissioner responsible for wooing the applicant countries concedes that the vote, due in March, may go against him.
In 1999 I was invited to Malta by its former Labour prime minister, Dr Mifsud Bonnici, to launch the Campaign for National Independence. Last week, as the parties geared up for the final weeks of the campaign, I returned to see how the battle was going. The European Commission has pulled out all stops in its desperation to secure a "yes" vote.
It has poured millions of taxpayers' euros into propaganda. Romano Prodi, the Commission President, is due to make another visit this week, following a five-day blitz by the "enlargement" commissioner, Gunter Verheugen. Ministers, MEPs and Commission officials have arrived in a steady stream, in the most determined assault Malta has seen since the siege of 1941-3.
The fanatically pro-Brussels Nationalist Party has played all the usual cards in campaigning for a "yes", from promises that Brussels will shower the island with subsidies to warnings that, if tiny Malta refuses "Mother Europe's" welcoming embrace, it faces impoverished isolation in a perilous world.
What distinguishes Malta from all other applicant countries, however, is that it has an opposition just as firmly hostile to membership. The Labour Party points out that the cost of complying with 86,000 pages of EU directives and regulations will far outweigh any net benefit from EU subsidies, and that Maltese taxpayers will have to match most of those subsidies pound for pound anyway.
But the key point, made in a succession of meetings during my visit to the island last week with a British MEP, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, was that, once it is submerged in a political union 1,000 times bigger than itself, Malta will lose all right to run itsown affairs.
Although, as a sweetener, the Maltese have been been promised five seats in the European Parliament (wholly disproportionate to their population), Mr Farage could point out that, since MEPs have no power anyway, this would give Malta no more influence over EU policy than it has now.
Inevitably in such an intensely political island, the Maltese have complicated their referendum battle. The Labour Party insists that what really matters is not the referendum but the next general election, and says it may yet ask its members to boycott the March vote as irrelevant, despite every indication that the "Noes" will win.
We had a surreal exchange with Dom Mintoff, the 86-year-old former prime minister, who insists that Malta should continue to negotiate until the EU changes into something different. He angrily told me I should insist that The Telegraph withdraws its support for EU enlargement - to which I replied that he had no more hope of changing the nature of the EU than I could have in influencing the policies of the Telegraph.
But the most haunting impression we were left with of this island where democracy still matters was the thought of what might happen to all those 50,000 people who last week took to the streets to express their passionate conviction that Malta should not lose its right to self-government. If in 10 years' time, living in a tiny corner of the new "United States of Europe", they see that it no longer matters what they think, where will all that passion be directed then?
By an astonishingly devious trick which could cost UK taxpayers £10 billion a year, Brussels is trying to use Malta's accession treaty to lock Britain into imposing VAT on food within seven years. A summary of the terms published by the European Commission makes clear that written into the small print of Malta's treaty - to which the UK will be a co-signatory - is a formal commitment that by January 1, 2010 all EU members must levy VAT on food and medicines.
This revelation should provoke a furore since a succession of British Treasury ministers - including Gordon Brown, Andrew Smith, Dawn Primarolo and Lord McIntosh of Haringey - have given pledges to Parliament that they will not impose VAT on food.
Current spending on food in the UK is £60 billion a year. VAT levied on this at 17.5 per cent would yield the Treasury £10 billion, of which £120 million would have to be given to Brussels. The refusal of Britain and Ireland to levy VAT on food infuriates other EU members, and Brussels has long tried to find some backdoor method to force the two countries into "harmonising" with the rest of the EU.
According to the summary of Malta's accession terms published by the Commission's Malta-EU Information Centre, Malta will not be compelled to introduce VAT on food until 2010, "on the understanding that by that time no other EU country would still have an exemption", and that "a declaration to this effect will be attached to the Malta treaty".
This puts Mr Blair on the spot. Britain would only be able to avoid a legal commitment to impose VAT by the embarrassing step of refusing to sign the treaty, thus denying Malta entry. Since the treaty cannot now be renegotiated it looks as though Brussels has Mr Blair in checkmate - unless the Maltese people let him off the hook by voting "no" in their referendum.
M ichael Trend, the Tory MP who has said he will stand down after it was discovered that he had claimed nearly £100,000 for overnight stays in London when he was actually going back home to Windsor, is clearly in the wrong parliament. For many members of the European Parliament, the only offence is not to behave like Mr Trend - and on a much larger scale.
Since 1999, Nigel Farage, one of three UK Independence Party MEPs, has, along with his Conservative colleague Daniel Hannan, been trying to expose the racket of MEPs' expenses.
In addition to their salary, MEPs can receive up to £40,000 a year through a daily subsistence allowance for being away from home (even though many live in Brussels), and they must automatically accept up to £30,000 a year for travel to and from home, though their true costs may only be a fraction of that.
A further £27,600 goes into their bank accounts to cover working expenses in Britain, despite the fact that many live and work almost entirely in Brussels. All told, they can receive up to £140,000 a year.
Yet when Mr Farage announced that he had used the surplus on his travel payments to assist victims of EU-related bureaucracy, including the "Metric Martyrs", he was officially reprimanded. If his cheap monthly flight from Stansted to Strasbourg costs only £40, the rules dictate that the balance of the mandatory £700 given for travel expenses must be kept for his own private use.
If he puts it to any other purpose, he is not only breaking the rules, he infuriates his fellow MEPs by highlighting the scam. As a keen Europhile, Mr Trend should definitely apply for a transfer.
A packed Oxford Union was startled on Thursday to see Mr Blair's senior agricultural adviser, Lord Haskins, reveal that he does not know the name of the ministry for which he works.
Debating a motion that "the needs of the countryside are being ignored", Clarissa Dickson-Wright, the television cook, pointed out that our agriculture ministry no longer refers to farming in its title. Lord Haskins intervened to claim that Defra stands for "the Department of Employment, Farming and Rural Affairs".
To much ribaldry from the students, Robin Page, farmer and journalist, explained to Defra's top adviser that its "f" stands for "food"; and Miss Dickson-Wright added that the "e" stands for "environment".
Lord Haskins, whose contempt for small farmers last week earned him Country Life's award as "Villain of the Year", apparently looked "confused".