In the face of the ongoing attempt by the Daily Telegraph to portray MPs in the worst light possible no matter what their actual sins, it has been easy to forget that there is an important election campaign now taking place.
I have had the option of voting in the European elections here in Estonia or where I am still registered to vote, in the UK. I have had to think hard about where I should vote. I am friendly with several of the leading political figures in this country and know several of the candidates for the European Parliament personally. In many ways I am closer to the Estonian version of Liberalism than the version of the party of which I am a member- the British Liberal Democrats. By voting in the UK, I could also be undermining my claim of Estonian residence in the eyes of the British tax authorities- and in the face of the Blitzkrieg unleashed by Alastair Darling in the last budget, that is not an insignificant consideration.
Furthermore, the European elections usually get greeted with a yawn of indifference in the UK. The general strain of scepticism towards the EU institutions also ensures that anti-Europeans turn out in disproportionate numbers. Thus UKIP, which has very few local councillors and fails to get any members elected either in Cardiff, Holyrood or Westminster, is still able to use the more proportional electoral system for the European elections to get several MEPs elected. That these MEPS do not have a very good track record- with splits and expenses issues all clouding their activities- does not seem to dissuade those who oppose British membership of the European Union from voting for them.
Of course the UK is in many ways becoming the odd one out in European Union collaboration. the arguments about membership of the Euro are one thing, but of course Britain opts out of vast swathes of European Union collaboration, from labour laws to measurement. The most irritating opt out, for me, is the fact that we are not members of the Schengen area. Whenever I have to fly to London I have to go to the area of the airport terminal designated "Non Schengen", which is usually cramped and without the facilities available in the rest of the air terminal. If I take a connecting flight, I will need to allow at least an extra half hour connection time in order to show my passport to enter or leave the "Non Schengen" area of the terminal. The cost in time and money to complete these pointless formalities is extremely irritating. As an Estonian resident I can travel freely throughout the Schengen area using only my Estonian documents. To go to the UK- the country where I was born and of which I am a full citizen, I need my passport and to be prepared to run the gauntlet of long lines at immigration followed by an interrogation by an immigration officer- a farrago that does not seem to have reduced the supposed "immigration crisis" in the UK one wit.
In Estonia, and much of the rest of the European Union, taking up the full benefits of EU membership has not been incompatible with the retention of national identity. Estonians can still hunt for their- extremely numerous- bears, despite a ban elsewhere. One of my close friends is an MP here who was the leader of the "No" campaign in the referendum on whether or not Estonia should join the European Union. Five years later he says, wryly, that he was against a super-state but that he now sees that the European Union's problems are actually the result of a lack of coherence, rather than too much coherence. As a result, he is now standing for election to the European Parliament committed to clarifying and reforming the structures of the European Union, of which he is now a cautious supporter.
So why should I take the time and trouble to vote in the UK? After all here in Estonia I can vote electronically and it will take 30 seconds, whereas- since I could not get a postal vote- I will need to fly to London and physically go into the polling booth. When all is said and done, even the Conservatives do not advocate that the British actually leave the European Union. Despite all of the poses that David Cameron strikes- withdrawal from the EPP (the pan-European alliance of right-wing parties) and all the hostile rhetoric against the Lisbon treaty, the fact is that the Conservative Party manifesto will not advocate leaving the European Union. Cameron even hints that he could accept some renegotiated version of the Lisbon treaty.
And that of course is the point: only UKIP and the Libertarians actually do oppose British membership of the EU. Even though a substantial number of Conservative voters will vote UKIP in the European elections, surely our membership of the European Union is not at threat?
Well, the reason why I will fly a thousand miles next week in order to cast my ballot is that the European debate in the UK has entered an advance state of schizophrenia. The general attitude is that the EU is an over-mighty and rather corrupt institution that- if we are to maintain our membership at all- must be made weaker. Any reform that simplifies the EU is taken to be an attempt to increase its power, and must therefore be resisted. Yet, as my Estonian friend has noted, the failure to reform is what has created the lack of accountability where corruption can flourish. The Lisbon treaty, and the Constitutional treaty before it, were attempts to codify and simplify the vast number of treaties that underpin the European Union edifice. To an extent, both treaties were seeking to simplify the current state of affairs, and the proposals for giving the EU a separate legal personality, represented by an elected President of the Commission and a more powerful external affairs commissioner are relatively modest compared to that which already exists. Furthermore an elected "President" would go a little way to fixing the democratic deficit that clearly exists amongst the EU institutions.
Nevertheless the British attitude to the EU is now something analogous to the current attitude towards our MPs. Failing to note any difference between silly, greedy or downright fraudulent claims on expenses has meant that all MPs, irrespectively, have been tarred with the same brush. Most MPs have not even been named in the scandal, and even those that have, have been condemned with a visceral hatred without even acknowledging that MPs should surely not have to run their offices or own second homes, either in their constituency or at Westminster, entirely out of their own pocket. The attitude of the Daily Telegraph - the originator of this political lynch mob- is now totally irresponsible. A similar irresponsible attitude pervades when talking about Europe.
Instead of thinking rationally about the pros and cons of the European Union, the debate has been framed by those who fulminate over the failings of the EU and will not acknowledge any positive points about it whatsoever. It is these people that David Cameron makes his anti-European nods and winks to. The problem then comes when he tries the political contortion of following through on his promise to veto Lisbon in order to satisfy the UKIP fringe of the Conservatives and then faces the fact that the other 26 member states decide to call his bluff. Cameron then faces a choice: damage the standing of the UK and put our continued membership of the EU at risk in order to satisfy the Conservative right wing or damage his party in order to make a deal with the other member states.
I think that this is playing with fire.
The pro-European voice in Estonia is common currency, but in the UK it is a minority. Therefore As a pro-European, I will come to vote in the UK for the only political party that emphatically supports our membership of the European Union and is prepared to work constructively to improve it, rather than simply following the politically cowardly route of making repeated and idiotic opt-outs for Britain. I will come to vote for the one political party in the UK that supports our joining the Schengen area, and that supports genuine reform of the European Union, in order to give it greater coherence and simplicity.
I believe that the contribution that the UK can make to the European Union is a positive one, and I believe that membership of the European Union is also a necessary and a positive political and economic feature of the UK.
I will be voting for the Liberal Democrats. Even if, as seems likely, the combination of low turnout and domestic political factors help the anti-Europeans, I at least will have done my duty.
By voting for a positive, constructive and intelligent attitude towards the European Union, I will have made my point against the increasingly vindictive, bad tempered, nasty and shrill nature of the political debate in the UK. I will have made my personal statement against what I consider to be the irrational Euro-hatred of UKIP and the rest.
After all, I still have the choice. If the anti- Europeans have their way, then the only way that I could vote at the next European elections would be as an Estonian citizen.