You can't hurry love, or the EU

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IF THERE was a prize for the most tedious book title of the year, this one would surely win. Anyone who even remembers the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam deserves a small prize - and a fortnight's stay at the Europa Hotel in Brussels, all expenses paid, if he can name three treaty topics. Add the fact that the author is a diplomat and former Eurocrat and that his work comes with a fulsome introduction by Jacques Santer, the European Commission President (a kiss of death if ever there was one), and the omens are distinctly unpromising.

But persevere. Wade through all the jargon about reflection groups, intergovernmental conferences (IGCs), the three "pillars" of the union, and such niceties as the "triangle of institutional reform." Take this book for what it is: an account of the means, not the ends, of the elaboration of a treaty, starting one pleasant June weekend in 1995 and ending, not a second too early for 15 exhausted heads of state and government, at 3.35am on 18 June 1997.

What emerges is a fascinating insider's account of how European, and indeed international, negotiations really work. Bobby McDonagh was a member of the Irish delegation, and writes with those uncommon EU attributes of shrewdness, clarity and wit. As a serving diplomat, unfortunately, he is bound by the overpolite conventions of his trade; those "governments" that cause trouble are not named. Even John Major's wrecking boys get a fairly decent press.

The EU of which McDonagh writes is the real EU - not the evil Continental juggernaut of tabloid fantasy, piloted by pocket Napoleons and reborn Hitlers. The beast is a plodding herbivore, not a rapacious flesh-eater. The F-word, federalism, has vanished from the agenda. No member country can be forced by this union to do something against its will. No leader has ever been forced to commit political suicide because of a commission edict. Yes, Europe was the issue on which Margaret Thatcher came to grief. However, her assassins were the Tories of Westminster not the bureaucrats of Brussels.

Parts of the book are for super aficionados only. Take this comment about streamlining voting methods: "It seemed clear, for example, that the decision-making mechanism for triggering the flexibility provisions would be akin to the new procedure under the Common Foreign and Security Policy, combining qualified majority voting with the possibility of exercising a veto." Clear? But the very obscurity reveals a vital truth.

The EU has to move at a snail's pace, from compromise to compromise, always incremental, always respecting the eternal verity of national interests. That is the original sin which dogs the building of a brave new world. The method is messy, time-consuming and horrifyingly complex. But there is no alternative, for the system otherwise simply would not work. To use a title from the Supremes borowed by McDonagh: "You Can't Hurry Love".

Equally obviously, the system is not perfect. First, the EU must get its people interested in what is (like it or not) the most important pooling of sovereignty ever undertaken by independent democratic countries, on which the future stability of our continent depends. Yet we remain mostly indifferent, our feelings about Europe similar to the job of soldiering: long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of blind terror - or, more accurately, blind hatred. Thus the recent great German tax scare, inspired by The Sun's "most dangerous man in Europe" - "Foxtrot Oskar" Lafontaine.

So what can be done to liven things up and make Europe more comprehensible and relevant ? Maybe a TV seminar by Bobby McDonagh after each summit might help: any Eurocrat who likens the huddle at the final negotiation to "the crowd which gathers around the three-card trick man at a racecourse" clearly has a future as a popularising pundit. As for the tricksters, the 15 delegations themselves, they should be given the technology to play their hands electronically, registering choices by pressing buttons rather than by laborious handraising and headcounts. That would at least speed things up, as would other McDonagh suggestions for electronic real- time drafting of reports and documents, and for "chess-clocks" to limit the time of each delegation's intervention.

Even so, the Treaty of Amsterdam was probably unsaleable to the public at any price. It funked crucial decisions on institutional reform. The rest - on open borders, common security policy and "bringing the Union to the Citizen" - was never going to set pulses racing. Another IGC will probably be needed to fill in the gaps. If so, one may hope that Bobby McDonagh is around to chronicle it. And, this time, naming names.

Rupert Cornwell