Europe may speak English, but it remains foreign

Rupert Cornwell returns to Brussels

Share
Related Topics
Until this week, I hadn't set foot in Brussels as a working journalist since the start of the Seventies, yet some things never change. Belgian drivers are still indubitably the worst in the industrial world. Back in those days the body that we went to Brussels to cover was referred to as the "Common Market", it had six members and functioned in French. Now there is a European Union with 15 members, which largely works in English. But the bureaucratic, paper-laden rhythms of the Commission are the same, and the casual-chic dress code of its officials - dark grey slacks and natty Italian sports jackets - has survived every passing whim of fashion. But in an instant, the time traveller realises that deep down the place has been transformed. "Brussels" 25 years ago was a distinctly foreign and rather exotic place (in so far as anything in Brussels can be termed exotic). Now it feels like, and often is, an arm of Whitehall.

Make no mistake. For all our domestic political ructions over Europe, and whatever our "semi-detached" stance towards the process of European integration, Britain has exerted much influence on the Union's development. Almost everywhere, free trade and market liberalisation are the norm. On social policy Britain is winning the intellectual argument. Even in France, statism is on the retreat and there is agreement that labour markets must be loosened. "Anglo-Saxon" may be the dirtiest word in the Gallic dictionary, but liberalisme a la francaise may well ride to the rescue. And finally there is the enlargement to the East, which the British always wanted - if only to widen the Union to prevent it being deepened.

The very nature of the Commission is changing in ways the British will especially appreciate. Europe's nuts-and-bolts "government" is a curious constitutional hybrid, part executive body, part policy innovator and proposer of laws. Today, though, it is increasingly a manager, an enforcer of rules that already exist. One reason is obvious: with the single currency, the economic aspect of union will be largely complete. There simply isn't much more to propose. But the Commission is also proposing far fewer laws because that is what other countries, led by Britain, have demanded. That is the essence of "subsidiarity," the principle that the more decisions taken at a national, regional, even local level, the better. In other words, one in the eye for Big Brother in Brussels. Isn't that what the British have always wanted?

So we should be relatively happy. Yet instead we are defensive and uneasy. For Britain has never understood the dynamic of European progress, incremental and at first almost invisible. Thus seemingly innocuous references in one treaty can become less innocuous resolutions in the next one, and firm policy in the one after that. Then there is Europe's habit, visible from the very birth of the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, of taking apparently economic steps which then prove to have profound political consequences, extending European integration. And so, you can bet, it will be with the euro.

Barring calamity, the single currency will start on schedule next January. The most likely source of that calamity is of course Asia's continuing financial crisis. But so far the dog has notably failed to bark in the night. Thus far, European exchange rates have registered barely a tremor. Not long ago, the alarums would have provoked a run into the German mark, and quite possibly a realignment of parities. So far, though, we've seen nothing - certainly not the tensions widely predicted even before the financial turmoil in the East began. The prospect of feckless Italians joining may give Dutch and German officials palpitations about an overweak euro. The markets, however, couldn't care less. For them, the euro is a fait accompli.

Maybe the magic spell will break; maybe the Commission experts who assured me Asia's impact will be "marginal" will be proved wrong, and European growth rates will decline and unemployment will rise. In that case public opinion could force governments to turn against the project. But none of this is happening yet. And come 2002, when euro notes and coins are circulating, it will surely be too late to dismantle the single currency.

By then, the indirect, political consequences will be kicking in. A common monetary policy will, as a result of the Maastricht criteria, perforce bring more closely co-ordinated fiscal policies in its wake. A single currency will give the EU a larger role in the IMF, a reserve currency to rival the dollar, and a louder voice in global financial diplomacy. Had the euro been up and running now, Europe's visible involvement in tackling the Asian problem would surely have been much greater.

And what of the British in all this? Despite the fuss over Britain's vain demand to be represented on the "Euro-X" council of single currency finance ministers, the shine is still largely on the Blair government. Belatedly it has learnt from the French that if you talk the right talk, you can get away with Euro-policy murder. Oiled by a practised Whitehall machine, the British EU presidency has made an efficient start, and will doubtless continue in that vein. But the presidency lasts only until June 30. Then it will be back to business as usual, and all the positive talk in the world will not conceal the fact that Britain is on the outside of the most ambitious project in Europe's post-war history. Life in "Brussels" will chug on of course, increasingly in the English language. But Brussels' soul, if not its body, will remain foreign.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own