. . .and a tide of hate bemuses Bonino

The arguments over Europe are usually about sovereignty, economics, and highfalutin matters such as political vetoes or the future of Britain's fishing fleet. But a glance into the bulging postbag of Emma Bonino, the European Union's fisheries commissioner, reveals a reality that is rather more down to earth. Brussels officials are stunned by the extent of the British bile, which they are now seeing more of than ever before. Germans, it is clear, are not the only Europeans who some Britons love to hate.

Sexism, racism, and plain old-fashioned abuse: it's all here, in abundance. Typical is the letter from Catherine Straker, in Rye: "To Emma Bonino, fishing ... Please go back to your own rotten mafia country and stay there, and stop being a public nuisance."

Or the letter from Mr Hone, from near Grimsby, attaching a "Don't let Europe rule Britannia" sticker to his letter: "Dear Em, From recent reports it sounds as if you have caught BSE. Stop beefing, you silly old moo."

An unprecedented torrent of British bile has been pouring into Ms Bonino's postbag. Previously, "Yours, disgusted" of Tunbridge Wells has shown little inclination to post his thoughts all the way to distant Europe. Evidently, Mrs Bonino upset a lot of people when in May she announced proposals for a 40 per cent cut in the British fishing fleet to try to save Europe's fish stocks.

A svelte smart-talking Italian, Mrs Bonino then further annoyed the Europhobes when she had the gall to go to Britain and set out the Commission's policy, explaining why it was the British government, not the Commission, which had sold out British fishermen.

But there is more to the torrent of abuse than that. Franz Fischler, the agriculture commissioner, who banned British beef, is not the object of attack. Mrs Bonino is Italian, and Italians are self-evidently dirty and cowardly. And, of course, it is she - not Mr Fischler - who is the "silly old moo" because she is a woman. "Your hygiene is not so high as it is in Britain, judging by reports in the press." says "British citizen" from West Sussex.

Italy is taking revenge for its defeat in the war, says Richad Swarbrick of Farnham, Surrey, who signs off saying, "regarding your nation and nationals with utmost hate and loathing." Mr Swarbrick has attatched to his letter a drawing of the EU symbol, showing the ring of stars with a skull and cross-bones in the middle.

Mrs Bonino, a hardened human rights campaigner, admits she has been taken aback by the letters. She intends to reply to each.

"I will thank them for their letters of disgust and then try to set out the facts," she says. In some respects the outbursts are positive sign, she argues, because at least Britons are now engaged in the debate directly with Brussels. And she says the letters have helped break down her own stereotyped view of English prejudices. "I always thought the British were so controlled and polite."

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