Delors' steely gaze meets a brick wall

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BRUSSELS - Not even Jacques Delors' famous steely glare could spare him a close encounter with Belgian bureaucracy on Tuesday night, writes Tim Jackson.

The European Commission's President was on his way back to HQ after a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

A strike by Brussels airport staff forced Air France to divert his flight to Charleroi, south of the capital. But, although it has received lavish EC subsidies, the half-built Charleroi airport gave a stony reception to the Euro-dignitaries. At first no bus could be found to deliver the passengers through driving rain to the arrivals hall. Then the only staff at immigration were a pair of inexperienced Belgian gendarmes.

Never mind the EC's much- vaunted single market, with its free movement of people and goods; intent on obeying orders to the letter, the two policemen confiscated the passengers' passports and left their owners hanging about while they checked the details on a computer in a locked room near by.

Among the fuming notables were Wolfgang Wolte, the Austrian ambassador to the EC; Sir John Kerr, head of Britain's mission to Brussels; and Bruce Millan, the former Labour cabinet minister just reappointed as a European Commissioner - the job Neil Kinnock had hoped for.

Having established his identity, Mr Delors was allowed to leave early. The rest were not. Mr Millan lost patience, and was whisked off to Brussels by his waiting limousine. An underling stayed behind with his passport.

The Austrian ambassador and the Commission's Secretary-General fired off angry letters to the Belgian foreign ministry.

Sir John, however, maintained a tactful silence. No wonder: one of his tasks between now and December will be to fight for Britain's right to maintain its passport controls after the new year.