Leading article: Horsetrading towards unity

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FOR THOSE so minded, these past two days in Helsinki will have proved there are few occasions to which the European Union is not capable of sinking. Finland was supposed to have been where the 15 member countries set out along the high road towards the Europe of the 21st century. And in a sense they did, by approving a model of defence co-operation as potentially significant to the Continent's future as the single currency is, and by opening the EU's doors to six more countries and - one day perhaps - to one more, Turkey. Unfortunately, this last EU summit of the 20th century is at least as likely to be remembered for two stops it made along the low road: the Anglo-French row over beef, and Britain's veto of a 20 per cent Europe-wide tax on interest income.

In the process, old stereotypes have been resurrected, seized upon by Europhiles and Eurosceptics alike. By insisting that the proposed tax would cause untold harm to the City of London, Britain rides again as Europe's one-nation wrecking squad, as mulish and incorrigibly anti-communautaire as during the Thatcher and Major years. By defying law, science and logic in its refusal to lift the ban on imports of British beef, France is again playing to type as the union's hypocrite-in-chief, preaching the virtues of Europe, but flouting its rules as and when it suits.

And there is a striking symmetry between the two alleged misdeeds. In each, domestic politics were the determining factor. When a decision could be put off no longer in the beef dispute, Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister, preferred to offend his ami, Tony, rather than upset influential French consumer groups, and hand free ammunition to the right-wing opposition.

On beef, it must be said, our own Prime Minister has behaved most commendably, eschewing hysterical urgings to start a trade war in retaliation. "Humiliated!" scream the tabloid headlines. But is it a humiliation to be in the right and to let the law take its course ? And does anyone seriously imagine that unilateral action against the French - quite apart from its patent illegality - would have made Paris change its mind ? Quite the opposite. Britain's behaviour over the tax, however, is cut from a rather different cloth. This newspaper is not persuaded that the measure would kill the golden goose of London's enormous Eurobond business, by forcing the market outside the EU to a more complaisant centre like Zurich where fewer questions are asked. In any case, the compromise on offer, whereby the British authorities would inform other EU countries of interest earnings by their citizens on the London market, seems to us both feasible and perfectly acceptable.

But no, just like Mr Jospin, Mr Blair has to cover his political bases at home. He too has a right-wing opposition, baying at the slightest whiff of "caving in to Brussels" in general, and of gullibility in the face of perfidious Gaul in particular. He must cope with what may be a growing public disenchantment with Europe. And all this before a promised referendum on a single currency mocked and savaged on a daily basis by the right- wing press. Mr Blair must not only walk tall in Europe; he must be seen to walk tall. The truth is that the bickering over beef and the investment tax are a salutary lesson in Europe's ways. Love it or loathe it, the European Union is the most remarkable experiment between free, democratic countries in human history. But it can only advance if it respects frequently competing national interests. Never has an EU member knowingly surrendered a major national interest against its will. Any government which did so would soon find itself out of office.

Even what was indisputably our greatest disaster in Europe, the truly humiliating withdrawal of the pound from the ERM on "Black Wednesday" in 1992, was the failure of a policy not forced upon Britain by Brussels, but one taken entirely through free will by Margaret Thatcher two years before. And in defending their national corners other EU members act no differently from Britain and France - witness the refusal of Spain and Portugal to give up their regional aid to potential new entrants from East Europe, and Greece's long obstruction of Europe's relations with Turkey. Nor, in their quieter way, do supposedly model Europeans, such as the Dutch and Belgians, miss a trick either.

Helsinki has been a classic example of how the EU works. The European idea will draw life from the launch of a common defence policy, and an eastward enlargement that one day will unite a continent. Day-to-day Europe, however, lives by horse-trading along the low road, over issues like beef and withholding tax. No deal could be struck at Helsinki, but sooner or later one will be, for that is how Europe advances.

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