Europe may speak English, but it remains foreign

Rupert Cornwell returns to Brussels

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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.

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