True Brits work for The Other Side: Germans and Britons now work in each others' Foreign Offices, Steve Crawshaw writes from Bonn

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A BRITISH diplomat argues the German case (in German) across the table from her British colleagues at negotiations in Brussels. Another British diplomat tells an international meeting: 'We Germans simply cannot accept . . .' A German diplomat drafts policy proposals for Douglas Hurd. Not fantasy, nor a silly- season prank, but the reality of Europe today.

Crises between Germany and Britain are the stuff of newspaper headlines - and the diplomatic spats that erupt from time to time are real. Both sides regularly express frustration, or worse, with the behaviour of the other. In the more robust corners of the British press, this irritation tends to be accompanied by references to Hitler, goosesteps and jackboots. The latest arguments, over alleged German heavy- handedness regarding the next president of the European Commission, have spilt on to the front pages in recent weeks. A special meeting in Brussels today will attempt to resolve the diplomatic stalemate.

And yet, despite the high- profile arguments, close co- operation is taking place which may prove as significant as the headline-grabbing disputes in the longer term. Co-operation between two sides is the stuff of diplomacy, especially within the European Union. This goes further. German diplomats are employed at the Foreign Office working for Britain, and Britons in Bonn return the compliment. An exchange that began as a get-to-know- you exercise has gone beyond that. British and German passport-holders are regularly set to work drafting policy for The Other Side.

Even in these days of alleged European unity, some have difficulty in coming to terms with the idea. Hartmut Lang, a German diplomat now back in Bonn, describes how visitors' 'jaws dropped' when they discovered that the British official they had come to talk to was a German - born, bred and salaried.

Sally Hinds, previously at the British embassy in Kiev, now sends instructions to the German embassy there signed 'Hinds - Legation Counsellor 1' - her German rank. It is, she notes, 'a bit weird'.

Andrew Tucker, who recently ended a stint on the Balkan desk in the German Foreign Ministry, says there is just one principle to follow. 'I consciously felt that I was wearing a German hat at all times. I had to do a good job for the Germans. That was my guideline, throughout.'

Both sides insist that the headline-grabbing disputes - most recently over the British veto on Jean-Luc Dehaene, Germany's favourite candidate to be European Commission president - could take place 'almost on another planet'.

Ms Hinds points out: 'The World Cup is discussed, day in, day out. Dehaene isn't' Nor are sensitive areas avoided. At present, for example, a German diplomat is part of London's key 'planning office' team.

Diplomats on both sides emphasise that they have little difficulty in adjusting to the viewpoint of The Others. They pinpoint cultural differences rather than policy differences as the most difficult to overcome. Germans speak admiringly of British diplomatic telegrams - 'a linguistic joy - concise and easy to understand'. Britons maintain an eloquent silence when asked about German telegram style.

Some Germans argue that their system allows more expression of 'alternative views'. That may be connected with another difference in style. Like most countries, Britain thinks, above all, in terms of its 'national interest'. In the words of one British diplomat: 'The Foreign Office is very pragmatic. It sees what is possible - almost what is expedient.' Another Briton notes: 'A major part of my job is promoting British interests.'

German diplomats, by contrast, talk with a hint of self- irony of the 'moralising' tone of German diplomacy, while praising the freedom that this permits. 'We are more ready to say: 'I have two opinions: the official one, and my own'.'

In Germany, 'My country, right or wrong,' would not merely sound quaint but would have echoes of a historical nightmare. Suggest to German diplomats a television series about their work called True Germans, and they laugh at the impossibility of the idea. In Germany, national pride is - notwithstanding the anguish over this week's football defeat - not something that diplomats can easily wear on their sleeves.

But, despite the differences, it is the warmth of the relationship which both sides emphasise - with fulsome private tributes, not just party-line praise. German and British diplomats alike point out that the French, despite the much-vaunted special relationship with Germany, do not share nearly as much of their information as do London and Bonn. Germans talk of a 'unique (British) readiness to put almost everything on the table - with the French, it's more complicated'.

There is talk of 'culture shock' at the start. But there is reconciliation, too. As one British diplomat noted: 'The longer you do the job, the more you realise how similar is what you're trying to do.'