“Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy. Deceit is a poison in its veins.” The words of the late Senator Edward Kennedy – and he would know – are worth reflecting on as we ponder the growing disenchantment with politicians in the EU and beyond. There are many causes: the poor calibre of those seeking election; the failure to listen to the concerns of the electorate, the continual appeasement of pressure groups whose interests often conflict with those of the population as whole, the frustration that voting makes no difference, and so on. But what links all these concerns is integrity, and the increasing scarcity of it in public life.
To take two examples. First, our old friend Radek Sikorski appears to be in hot water over his expenses. Following the scandal of the travel expenses of three members of the Polish parliament who were photographed on a budget flight from Madrid returning from a conference, for the journey to which they had claimed a fuel allowance from parliament, Sikorski also has questions to answer over the same allowance. Apparently, according to Polish tabloid Fakt, Sikorski, who became speaker of the parliament in September after seven years as foreign minister, claimed a fuel allowance for 90,000 kilometres of travel on parliamentary business although he used his ministerial car for travel and his private car seems to have covered only a third of that mileage.
No doubt the truth will emerge once the public prosecutor’s investigation into the expense claims of eleven members of parliament reaches some conclusions but, in the meantime according to an opinion poll for the Rzeczpospolita, newspaper, 58 per cent of those responding would like Sikorski to give up his seat because of the ambiguities over his expense claims, with 39 per cent being strongly of the opinion that he speaker should resign. The fact that under the Polish constitution the speaker takes over in the event of the death of the president probably also had a part to play – it would be embarrassing to have the president under a cloud of potential dishonesty: after all, this is not France.
Second, the outgoing Polish EU commissioner, Janusz Lewandowski, has declined to follow the admirable (and that is not a word often used in relation to the EU commission) example of several of his colleagues of giving up his severance pay. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, those members of the commission, who have been elected to the European Parliament have declined the severance pay to which they would have been entitled on ceasing to be commissioners. Lewandowski has been elected as a member of the European Parliament but has declined to follow this example. Instead, he was quoted as saying that he intends to increase the donations he makes to charity. Lewandowski is entitled to half of his commissioner’s salary of EUR 23,200 a month for three years, on top of his parliamentary salary and allowances.
Now, there is no suggestion here that Lewandowski is guilty of any dishonesty, but at a time of strain on public budgets and given the example set by erstwhile colleagues, there does seem to be a certain lack of integrity. After all, come election time, these folk are quick to parade their soi-disant virtue and commitment to public service when, in reality, all too often politics is seen as a way not of giving something back but simply taking: as much and as quickly as possible, while one has the chance. Or, in other words, not so much public service as self- service; not helping others but helping yourself. Indeed, even the new EU Council President Donald Tusk, despite saying he had a job to do as prime minister of Poland, was quick to take the larger salary and to abandon the inconvenience of facing an electorate.
Integrity in public life simply means doing the right thing. Whether it is honesty over expenses claims or realising that just because one is entitled to something does not mean that it is right to take it. Perhaps if politicians were folk of integrity rather than of in it for me, there would be more engagement by the electorate which is what a healthy democratic system needs.
Or, in the words of another morally ambiguous Kennedy, Edward’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, on true public service: “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Happy New Year!