Britain is still a little fish in the big backwater of Brussels

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The Independent Online
WHY SHOULD Brussels ban the sale of Blackpool rock? What has it got against red cocktail cherries or prawn-flavoured crisps? Why is it, I am often asked, that 'Brussels' takes such small account of our peculiar British habits and tastes?

The problem is that not enough of our best-qualified people are being recruited to the European Commission and Parliament. Europe has become a backwater. The road to the top does not run through Brussels. This is why Britain's case so often goes by default.

It was not always thus. I recall that blissful dawn 20 years ago. At last we were 'in'. At last, I thought, we have found the role that Dean Acheson said we so sadly lacked. A 50p coin was minted showing nine clasped hands in a circle, symbolising how we would all work with and help one another. The Times printed an article with the heading 'Eurocrats Wanted', explaining that, as a new member, Britain was entitled to a quota of well-paid Brussels officials. Mr Heath circularised Whitehall, inviting the best of our administration to represent the British interest across the water.

True, the Labour Party was sceptical then, but about a third of Labour MPs were as enthusiastic as we were. George Thomson became one of our two commissioners in Brussels. One budding mandarin, David Hannay, accompanied Christopher Soames, the Conservative commissioner. Another top Brussels post went to Ronnie Grierson, the famous banker and industrialist. A few years later David Marquand, a Labour MP, took a post as aide to Roy Jenkins at the commission, giving up his seat in the Commons. There was a clear decision by Ted Heath, as prime minister, and his close colleagues to create a 'new model army' of Eurocrats who would promote Britain to the utmost and then, having done their stint abroad, be rewarded with plum jobs at home.

The French have always done this. Graduates of the grandes ecoles are fattened up like Strasbourg geese for the annual commission concours. The famous German political foundations, the Adenauer Stiftung (CD) and the Ebert Stiftung (SPD), also groom young graduates for European stardom, training them in the traditional disciplines of economics and the law, which the commission still prefers to our own more general syllabus.

France treats this exercise as a matter of high national priority. This is why there are now 659 French 'A Grades' working in the commission and only 460 British, why we have only 11.7 per cent of the commission's administrative posts, instead of the 15 per cent that we could properly claim. Even the Belgians have more top-grade people than we do, despite their far smaller population.

Paris does not forget its citizens who join the commission. There is a minister whose job it is to care for all the French officials who work in international bodies. It is explained to them that France has not said goodbye to them, merely au revoir, and that their duty meanwhile is to represent French interests, and that if they do, there will always be a good place for them back home.

I am sure that they bear this most carefully in mind as they sit in Brussels working on initial drafts of EC directives. They know where French interests lie. They also know where their own interests lie. And they make their decisions accordingly. None of their drafts will be calculated to damage the sales of brie or cognac.

There is now a scheme to train future British 'A Grades'. But when they go to Brussels, they have to resign from the British civil service and Whitehall forgets about them. They are not nursed while they are away. On the contrary, their London ex-colleagues envy them for their high salaries and are quick to accuse them of 'going native'. If they want to work back home, they have to apply and be selected again. But very few do. The cord is cut.

It is true that we have a few brilliant stars - the secretary-general of the commission, David Williamson, and the president of the European Investment Bank, Sir Brian Unwin. But we are badly under-represented in the middle ranks. British interests suffer as a result.

Pioneers such as David Hannay and Michael Jenkins went on to be top ambassadors, but since then Brussels has seldom featured on the path to British administrative glory. Ambitious people took the hint from Margaret Thatcher and, if they visited Brussels, did so mainly to criticise.

The experience of the European Parliament is the same. Mr Heath's close friend Peter Kirk led our first delegation there in 1973 and, when elections came in 1979, many senior MPs tried for seats. Barbara Castle was with us for 10 years. Then Margaret Thatcher told Jimmy Young that it was not a true parliament and many MPs accepted this easy judgement. Of Britain's 81 MEPs, not one is a privy councillor.

The continentals see it differently. Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Delors, Edith Cresson, Jacques Chirac - almost every leading French politician has served in Strasbourg. Simone Veil was an MEP from 1979 until a few days ago, when she became France's deputy prime minister. Valery Giscard d'Estaing sits with us still. Willy Brandt was a member, as were a handful of Italian prime ministers. The former Belgian prime minister Leo Tindemans now leads our group of CD/Conservative MEPs.

As with their civil servants, the French see a term in Europe as part of a whole career. Their parties encourage them to move between parliaments. It helps their national interest. British equivalents, whether MEPs or commission civil servants, are not encouraged in the same way. Which is one reason why the blissful dawn of 1973 has been allowed to become a wet and gloomy midday for the British cause in Europe.

Lord Bethell is MEP (Conservative) for London North-west.