Inside File: Britain bemuses Nordic 'vassals'

Click to follow
'BRITAIN and her vassals,' was how a Spanish diplomat was wont to refer to the prospect of Nordic entry to the European Union until the British themselves threatened to scupper the whole deal.

The southerners frequently used to grumble in private about how the expansion would result in a northern, Protestant, rich man's club within a club. Last week, a British diplomat reiterated why: 'They are northern liberals, free traders and net contributors. This is exactly the sort of image we're trying to create. It shifts the centre northwards.'

But if the new entrants are so much Britain's cup of tea, why are the Tories so fixated by the need to keep Britain's blocking vote?

'Ah, well,' said the British diplomat. 'Although they may be with us now, they won't be with us for very long - because they have this unfortunate deviation towards social conscience.'

The irony is not lost on the Nordic applicants. Had they heard that response first hand, they would have retorted that as the Britons have opted out of the social chapter anyway, why should any such 'deviation' concern them?

The Nordics grow ever more bemused at what they perceive as the out-of-touch behaviour of their one- time champions. 'Who does Douglas Hurd think he is?' said a Swedish analyst. 'Just listen to the way he speaks. Nobody speaks like that any more. There can be only one thousandth of the British population that does. And that coat of his is seriously alarming.'

And so Kenneth Clarke, on a visit to Stockholm on Tuesday, sought to pour oil on troubled waters. Mr Clarke - whom one Swedish journalist noted was 'apparently the most colourful member of John Major's government' - said: 'Nobody wants this. It is an unintentional crisis. Everybody knows that delays are very damaging. The question arouses as much desperation in London as in Stockholm.'

Mr Clarke added that he had high expectations of Sweden's membership, blamed the rest of the EU for raising the voting question now, and recalled in a note of warning that General Charles de Gaulle in his day delayed Britain's entry by more than 10 years.

EU logic takes a bit of practice. As one Nordic diplomat in Brussels noted: 'The decision-making here is not entirely rational.'

THE repeated denunciations of British policy on Hong Kong by Sir Percy Cradock, the former foreign affairs adviser to two prime ministers, have had his successors in the Foreign Office biting their tongues for quite some time. But no more.

Sir Percy, who retired in 1992 after serving as ambassador to Peking and chief negotiator of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, took his complaints to Chatham House yesterday: the new approach taken by the Governor, Chris Patten, was leading Hong Kong into disaster, the Chinese would carry out every one of their threats and the colony would wind up worse off than if it had stuck to his course, which he described as 'negotiation, probing and retreat'. Official policy, he said, had 'a zany, Alice-in-Wonderland quality'.

At question-time, Christopher Hum, the Assistant Under-Secretary dealing with Hong Kong, rose. Saying he was from the Foreign Office, 'or perhaps I am Alice in Wonderland', he recalled the 'acerbic debates' he had enjoyed while serving under Sir Percy in Peking. He noted the 'total absence' of any reference in his former mentor's speech to the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, and said he detected 'a certain contempt for the political process' there.

The Tiananmen Square massacre had forced Hong Kong people to become more politically sophisticated. 'On taking office, could the Governor have gone into a secret huddle with the Chinese for six or nine months? Absolutely not.'

Absolutely yes, Sir Percy said. It would have been 'infinitely better for his clients'. As for the accusation of contempt, he would have to be more careful with his tone, but Britain could not shuffle off its responsibility for Hong Kong on to the legislature: 'If that appears condescending, so be it.' It did.