Obituary: Emile Noel

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The Independent Online
Felicitously and accurately, writes Tam Dalyell, Richard Mayne, himself a Brussels insider, describes Emile Noel as a "grey eminence" [obituary, 3 September]. But as a politician and an indirectly elected MEP from 1976 to 1979, may I record the warmth of the welcome accorded by Noel to the first British Labour delegation to the European Parliament, and the help that he gave any of us who had the curiosity to inquire of him about the seemingly Byzantine labyrinth of the European Community empire, of which he was the Grand Vizier. Lurking in the greyness and the eminence was a delicious, if Gallic, sense of humour and a capacity to recall events with sparkling clarity of insight.

One balmy night in Strasbourg in 1976, he invited his old friend Sir Geoffrey de Freitas, MEP, MP, Minister in the Attlee government, to dinner, and me - as a young MEP who happened to be there - to tag along, too. Noel told us an extraordinary, and I believe hitherto unprinted, story to which he was one of the few to be privy.

It was at what turned out to be a crucial meeting in the history of Europe, on 1/2 June 1955 at Messina in Sicily, attended by senior ministers, and European heavyweights such as Paul- Henri Spaak, Jean Monnet, Guy Mollet, and Walter Hallstein. The British representative was not from the Foreign Office but (by design, because Britain regarded Europe "as a trade matter") from the Board of Trade.

It was bad enough, twinkled Noel, that Angleterre did not send a minister. It was worse that if it were to be an official that represented Grand Bretagne, it were not a Foreign Office official. It was even worse still that the particular official dispatched to the birth of Europe scarcely showed even a polite interest in proceedings which were to prove historic.

Instead, reminisced Noel, he played hookie from the receptions and out- of-conference discussions, skipping even some of the formal sessions and indulged in his passion for pursuing butterflies and moths in the beautiful Sicilian countryside. Noel said that he did not doubt that Russell Bretherton was a very clever man and certainly a most "distingue entomologist" (he was author of Moths and Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland volumes 9 and 10, 1979-83). But he added acidly that if Wadham College, Oxford, had taught its students and fellows (of whom Bretherton was one from 1928 to 1945) the same manners that he himself learnt at the Ecole Normale Superieure, the British might have been wiser about the stirring of events in post-war Europe. And, added Noel, if Bretherton had not had to go home early at the end of the expert discussion of the Inter- Governmental (Spaak) Committee in November 1955, the development of Europe might have been different - and, Noel implied, better politically, because he thought that British participation mattered.

"Vous n'avez aucune idee," he said, how damaging the attitude of British ministers and Bretherton was to Britain and to Europe.