Earlier this week Jonathan Isaby (co-editor of ConservativeHome) and I travelled to Brussels to look round the European Parliament and meet a number of Conservative MEPs and their staff. It was a fascinating experience for both of us, but especially memorable for me as I hadn't been before (Jonathan has also written about the visit here).
One of the people we met asked me, amiably, if I had come with an open mind. I sort of spluttered in response that I hoped so – wanting to demonstrate that I was there to learn, but mindful that any change of heart would be interpreted as going native at the first touch of the gravy train.
I have been a eurosceptic – or rather a eurocynic – for as long as I can remember, and went to Brussels very much of the view that the UK would be better off if we withdrew from the EU's formal structures and signed a free trade agreement and also that such an outcome is eminently achievable.
I enjoyed being in Brussels. There is, inevitably, a cosmopolitan flavour to the whole place (albeit that almost everyone is white) and I had fun using those miniscule bits of French I recalled from my five years at a comprehensive school. We were made extremely welcome by the MEPs and their staff - not in an oleaginous way but motivated, I'm sure, by a sincere desire for Jonathan and me to leave with a better understanding of what goes on at the Parliament.
Thus we have arrived at point number one – not everyone in Brussels wants to act in a furtive manner, free from scrutiny. We had lengthy, candid discussions and were constantly thanked for making the effort to come across. I retain my view that the EU is necessarily undemocratic because it is impossible for most EU citizens to follow proceedings there, but I was heartened by the obvious pleasure that many Conservative MEPs took in telling us more about what they do.
This leads me on to point number two. The biggest surprise I had in Brussels was the realisation that many MEPs work very hard indeed. It was put to me that this might not actually be a good thing, but in terms of sheer effort the ones I met score pretty highly. Yet there is enormous scope for an MEP to be fabulously idle. Votes take place in Strasbourg, and as long as you turn up for those, you can largely avoid Brussels.
The biggest issue in recent weeks has been David Cameron's determination to withdraw the Conservatives from the EPP. Point number three is that our visit only served to confirm the wisdom of this. The EPP has a corporate view (of greater integration) that is inimical to Conservative philosophy, and we have no business sitting with them. I emerged from our trip confident that other colleagues can be found who have more sensible views, and that it will not hinder the Tories' effectiveness.
I have to confess that I misunderstood Parliamentary rules, and believed that all MEPs had to sit in a grouping including members from other countries. That is not in fact the case, but votes are organised in blocks, so being part of a group can be a help. On the one hand this system makes practical sense, but on the other it illustrates that there is so much to wade through in the Parliament that MEPs will be hard pressed to know even something about everything on which they vote. That does not speak well of democracy.
And it's depressing because the trip absolutely confirmed point number four – that what happens in the European Union matters. One MEP told me I should write less about Westminster and more about the EU as 70 per cent of our laws are made there. He added, in a surprisingly self-deprecating way, that it is a great shame that senior UK politicians don't go on to seek election to the European Parliament as they would exert an influence through pre-existing contacts that he could not. There are several former prime ministers in the Parliament from other countries, as well as people who have held different high national offices. Surely not everyone wants to go to the House of Lords?
Point number five, then, is the most important one. As long as we are members of the European Union, we should be fully engaged and seek to get our own way. It is folly to think of constructive disengagement. If we want to withdraw, that's one thing, but until we do laws are being made that have a profound impact on our lives. It ill behoves us to ignore what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg, as I had done until taking on this job.
It might seem romantic to refuse to engage on the grounds that we don't recognise the validity of The Project. But when Charles I said he didn't recognise the authority of those who had put him on trial, they still chopped his head off. (I hope no-one has made this comparison before, as I am jolly pleased with it.)
That said, Charles I didn't have the option of simply walking out, which the UK does. Have I changed my mind on this essential, existential point? I'm afraid not. Membership of the EU works very well for some countries, and if I was a native of them I might take a different view on purely pragmatic grounds.
No-one has ever managed to disabuse me (feel free to try) of the belief that the UK could negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU, have some continued labour mobility and sign trade agreements with other nations – and so be a lot better off and indeed improve the lot of a great many of the world's poorest.
But point number six is that the best way to be a critic of the EU project is to take a critical approach in the best sense – by becoming better informed and looking at things on a case by case basis, without going so far as to ditch one's core principles. That cause is not well served by being reflexively hostile every time an MEP opens their mouth, or indiscriminately ascribing venal motives to everything they do.
When an MEP speaks out on foreign policy relating to countries outside the European Union, one might leap to the conclusion that they are trying to shore up their own position or expand the influence of the EU. Or one might consider the possibility that a politician with a platform has every right to express an opinion, and that as the EU does concern itself with foreign policy UK MEPs are well-advised to take a position.
When engrossed in debate with an MEP, by all means don't be afraid to argue passionately, but perhaps stop short of slandering him and calling him an arsehole, as someone did in my presence on Tuesday night. When commenting on this and other threads, by all means say why you support the Better Off Out campaign, but please think whether just writing "BOO" is an intelligent contribution or the cyber equivalent of graffiti.
So there we are. I'm confident I wasn't hoodwinked, and I certainly wasn't turned, but I very much enjoyed myself. And yes, I did leave with a much greater admiration for the Conservative delegation than I had before I went, and this is not restricted to the out-and-out sceptics. As a journalist I do feel honourbound to report that some Conservative MEPs really hate each other, but I am pleased to say that I like most of them a lot, and will gladly vote Tory in June.