Beware polyglot MEPs on bikes: Britons tend to like the Dutch, but they aren't such good friends as we think, says Nicholas Bethell

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WHEN John Major told the House of Commons recently that there were two European Union countries insistently opposed to the British view on qualified majority voting, I imagine most people would have plumped for certain of our traditional adversaries as the likely candidates.

Our average British xenophobe is happy to observe that the French are inherently untrustworthy and the Germans naturally bellicose, that the Italians are slow to pay their taxes, the Spaniards are beastly to their animals and the Greeks quick to claim dubious subsidies on tobacco. The 'guilty' two - Belgium and the Netherlands - would be the last of those seen as likely to take an anti-British stance.

It is strange and little understood, but after 19 years in the European Parliament I can attest to it. It is the Dutch and their Dutch-speaking neighbours in Belgium, not the French or the Germans or anyone else, who are apt to oppose British policy on Europe most strongly.

We tend to think well of the Dutch. Together we were Europe's strongest seafaring nations. They fought with us against Hitler. Their queen took refuge in London during the Second World War. They follow our football, play our pop music, watch our TV programmes (with sub-titles, not dubbed) and speak our language. Of all Continentals, they are the most like us.

But our affection is not reciprocated. Whenever some British interest emerges in the Strasbourg assembly, the Dutch and Belgians will be the first to shoot it down. They were unhelpful to us over the Gulf War and IRA suspects. Although they are rich countries, beneficiaries from the EC budget, they are slow to agree to any British rebate.

When the British Conservatives applied to join the European People's Party group in the European Parliament in April 1992, almost all Dutch MEPs voted against us. The Germans and the French were solidly in favour. In conversations over the years I detect that the Dutch see their Conservative MEP colleagues as arrogant, Euro-sceptic, over-patriotic, paranoid in their anti- socialism, ultra-right-wing - and poor footballers.

Why then are the Dutch so dear to British hearts? 'You do not really like us,' a Dutch colleague told me. 'You just like to patronise us, because we speak good English and therefore you think we admire you.

'The Englishmen I really like are the ones who have taken the trouble to learn perfect Dutch,' he smiled.

English attitudes were not always so friendly, my colleague went on. Earlier historical stereotypes showed a stingy, cowardly and incomprehensible people who gave our language such disagreeable expressions as 'Dutch treat', 'Dutch courage' and 'double Dutch'. He recalled for me the verse sent (in cipher) to the English Ambassador at the Hague in 1826 by George Canning, the Foreign Secretary::

In matters of commerce the fault of the Dutch

Is in offering too little and

asking too much.

The French are with equal

advantage content,

So we'll clap on Dutch bottoms just 20 per cent.

The Dutch, perhaps, have become too close to us. They understand us too well and they resent what they see as our airs and graces, our pretensions to grandeur from a position of poverty, political polarisation, laziness and poor education. Our policies on soft drugs are repressive, they believe. The acid from our factories is carried by the west wind to poison their rain and kill their trees, and our prison population is the largest in Europe, excepting maybe Russia and Turkey. Generally they suspect us of having a poor human rights record.

They are taught how we outmanoeuvred them on the high seas and in empire, in the Far East and especially in South Africa, how, after the Boer war, we starved the Dutch speakers in 'concentration camps' (a concept the British invented), and imposed our language on them and still impose it, in Europe and everywhere else, and how even today, pathetically, we hang on to the debris of a dead empire in Northern Ireland, Southern Europe and the South Atlantic.

The Netherlands is risky for British representatives. There is an IRA cell in Amsterdam and in 1979 their men killed the British ambassador, Richard Sykes. Sympathy for the IRA's struggle is more widespread than in any other European country, and British soldiers, or even Australians who look like British soldiers, are in constant danger.

This is the over-simplified background of racial mistrust. But behind it lies a difference in our political approach to federalism. Many Dutch and Belgians want to turn the European Union into a United States of Europe. The idea of a superstate, socialist or otherwise, does not frighten them. It attracts them.

One can easily see why this is. The Dutch are a talented and rich people. My Dutch colleagues, almost all of them, speak three foreign languages. Their living standard is higher than ours. They have few social divisions or trade union problems. They aspire to greatness in the world.

They are used to federation. The Benelux union has lasted since 1948 without causing any significant worry about loss of sovereignty. Belgium and Luxembourg have a common currency and still feel they control their own affairs. Immigration control between the three countries is done jointly. They see little reason why the Benelux idea should not work on a pan-European basis.

As nation states, or even as Benelux, they cannot be powerful. They are too small. On the other hand, they could be a seriously strong group within a great European superpower. This is why they want a centralised federal Europe, with matters of foreign policy being decided by majority voting. It is in their interests to do so. Or so they think.

To the extent therefore that Britain represents the main barrier to full European unity, we are condemned to having the Dutch and Belgians against us in negotiations. And every now and again, when we really annoy our old Dutch uncles, they will be tempted, if not to send their fleet up the Thames, at least to vote against us in the Council of Ministers.

Lord Bethell is Conservative MEP for London North-West.

(Photograph omitted)