Blame those traffic jams on Brussels

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The Independent Online
SO FAR we have had the Bath summit, the Birmingham summit and now the Edinburgh summit, and I am sure people will have said to themselves: 'Hello, that's funny, they're in alphabetical order - I wonder where they're going to have the next one? Glasgow? Goring-by- Sea? And I wonder why they missed the Ds out?'

Well, all I can tell you is that it's going to be somewhere with a bad traffic problem. The point about these summits is that they are nothing to do with European unity and the Maastricht treaty. If they were, it would have been settled long ago - I mean, surely a few grown men can work out a meaningful framework for Europe, can't they? We are now in the last month of Britain's presidency of the European Community and our men are still looking for what was described on the news this morning as 'a final compromise solution to the Danish problem'. I don't know whose turn it is next for the presidency, but I have a strong feeling that they'll be doing the same sort of thing in January.

Nor is the Edinburgh summit about sovereignty vs federalism. This battle is often misunderstood. We are told that we mustn't be ruled from Brussels, but, actually, it's fairly clear to everyone that Brussels does a much better job of running most things than Westminster does. It would be hard not to, given the tired nature of our present government, which must be deeply grateful that governments don't have to pass MOT tests.

The Tories are so desperate for us not to notice this that they engineer things to make it look as if Brussels is to blame for their mistakes. Examples? Certainly. Norman Lamont's self-induced debacle over leaving the exchange rate mechanism was extensively blamed by him on the ERM (even though he had previously keenly supported it).

Example No 2. The EC has issued some fairly draconian guidelines about slaughterhouse procedure, which, if implemented here, might drive a lot of slaughterhouses out of business. John Gummer, our ineffable agriculture minister, could have tried to water them down. Instead, he has made them stiffer than they need be. Why? Because he is a nincompoop? Not this time. It's so that he can point to Brussels as the culprit.

But these summits are about none of these problems. If they were, we would have a few solutions by now. No, the thing they all have in common is that they are held in historic towns with ruinous traffic problems. I haven't driven through Birmingham recently, but I still have nightmares about the last time I did. Edinburgh I make regular visits to, and I can testify that it has slower changes of traffic lights than anywhere in Britain.

In fact, there are only two kinds of traffic light in Edinburgh: red lights, and lights that go red as you approach them. Driving along Princes Street is like driving into Fort Knox, with lights instead of guards. In London, enterprising young men with no work jump out to clean your windscreens while the lights are red. They don't do this in Edinburgh. Why not? Because at each red light they would have time to wipe all the windows, check the points, do an oil change and retread the tyres, which is a lot to do without any guaranteed payment.

Bath I visit regularly, and the traffic problems are so bad there that the police now count the number of cars parked in Bath each day. If there are more than a certain amount, they get a private security firm to tow away the excess figure; you can only recover the car by paying to the firm a sum roughly equivalent to the current second-hand price of the car. And the one-way system is so hideous there that it reminds you of Alice Through the Looking-Glass, where she found that if she headed towards the hill, it reappeared behind her and that the only way to get there was to head in the opposite direction.

Well, when you've got a town in this state, you have two choices. You can either devise ways of making things better, which nobody seriously wants to do or knows how to. Or you can play host to a European summit for a week. The point of this is that for seven days the security police, the extra traffic, the posh limousines, the queues outside hotels and halls, and so on, will make things so miserable that when things return to normal they won't seem half so bad, and people will stop grumbling for a while. Or at least until festival time, which is the other way, beside summits, that these cities like to make things worse than usual and pacify their residents.

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