From the fjords to the Algarve - Europhiles unite, and prepare to repel borders

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Far be it from me to pontificate about Europe (the issue), as opposed to Europe (the place), but I'm going to anyway. My justification for doing so is that Europe is a topic that concerns travellers and tourists more than anyone else. And who isn't a traveller and a tourist these days?

At first glance, Europe looks like an amazingly good thing where travellers are concerned. It facilitates travel. Butter mountains, wine lakes and BSE crises seem a small price to pay for the Schengen Accord, by which Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal have ceased to operate border controls among themselves.

This has opened up undreamt of freedoms. Just 20 years ago the Spanish border with France was manned by fascistic-looking policemen in tin helmets and sunglasses. Now it is a beautiful wide open road. Taking into account the fact that Scandinavian border police are usually on holiday, it is perfectly realistic to voyage from the southern Algarve to the northern cap of Norway without having to prove your identity to anyone.

And if the European Union one day decides to extend itself to incorporate eastern Europe, Turkey, Morocco or even Russia, so much the better.

British citizens tend not appreciate such changes as much as passport holders from other countries. But believe me, the "Schengen visa" - allowing travel in all the countries who have signed the accord - is sheer humanity. I applaud from the depths of my soul any legislation which reduces the number of man-hours spent in visa queues at embassies.

Only five or six years ago, a Chinese or African student resident in Germany would have had to wait three months for visa processing, just to enter France for a weekend break. They would have dared to cross the border without a visa at the risk of being thrown off their train. Now such students have the freedom of continental Europe.

When I say Europe, of course, I don't mean the British government, who have not signed the Schengen Accord and are proud of the fact - especially in light of the fact that France seems to regret having signed. The French are worried about Holland's liberal attitude to soft drugs; the British are worried about everything (except humanity to travellers I suppose).

The fact that people travelling through the Channel Tunnel are still obliged to carry their passports with them is especially depressing. If the tunnel isn't a sufficiently inspiring symbol of European unity, what is?

Apart from visas, other aspects of European policy pertaining to travellers include the ever-increasing levels of departure tax imposed on individual travellers, which these days can amount to as much as 30 per cent of the fares again (in the case of EasyJet's pounds 345 singles to the continent for example).

But as for the really big one - European Monetary Union - I think I'm going to have to come right out and say that if a gang of money-changing sharks on the Champs Elysees lose their jobs as a result of it I'm not going to lose any sleep at all.

And nothing would give me greater pleasure than using French or German cash-dispensing machines to withdraw the same notes that I had spent the previous week earning back in England (without commission). What's more, the Euro will replace the US dollar as the most desirable currency to have in your pocket when you are off the beaten track in Asia or Africa.

If Britain decides not to join EMU on the other hand, we face the horrible possibility of coming up against Franco-German costs of living whenever we step outside of Britain. Sterling will become one of those currencies that other Europeans snigger about. Who knows, we may even end up having to do dodgy black market deals with Germans in Trafalgar Square in order to obtain the Euros we need to go to Spain in search of illegal jobs.

No doubt there are people who lament the passing of quaint old symbols of diversity such as visas and different currencies. These are the same people who can't appreciate their paella by the Med unless they have been frisked by border police to get there. Could it be that John Redwood feels like this?

Personally I prefer my paella without any bureaucracy at all.

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