Our man in Brussels faces two ways

European Monetary Union: Britain continues its struggle to be both in and out
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The Independent Online
On Tuesday morning a man in a dark overcoat will leave Surrey commuter land, take a train to Heathrow and fly to Brussels. He will then drive to the Albert Borschette building, in the European Union's institutional heartland. Nobody will notice his arrival. He will blend easily into the Brussels bureaucratic bustle. And after a day-long meeting he will head home, talking to nobody on his way.

In his briefcase are plans for Europe's biggest revolution since the foundation of the EC. He is chairman of the European Monetary Committee, which is building the structural core of Economic and Monetary Union. Our visitor to Brussels is probably the most powerful civil servant in Europe today. He is Sir Nigel Wicks, a senior British Treasury official, who was one of Baroness Thatcher's favourite mandarins.

When the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, the European Monetary Committee was given the task of making economic and political preparations for EMU. One treasury official and one central bank official from each member state sits on the committee.

As British representative, Sir Nigel, director of international finance at the Treasury, made an excellent impression - so much so that he was elected chairman in 1993. He has since helped the committee make such good progress in building EMU that his colleagues have recently elected him as chairman for a second term.

The paradox of Sir Nigel's position is self-evident. While British Euro- sceptics rail against the diktat of "unelected Eurocrats", here is an unelected British civil servant playing the key role in preparing what, to them, will be the most federalist "diktats" of all.

It was Sir Nigel who in 1992, negotiated Britain's EMU opt-out at Maastricht, which makes it even more curious that today he spends so much time working for those who want to "opt in." At Tuesday's monetary committee meeting Sir Nigel will push for progress in a German-led plan for a so-called "stability pact", a key building-block for EMU, which will set out rules to be obeyed by countries who join. Critics have complained that if Britain signs the pact it will amount to the biggest transfer of sovereign powers in recent years.

For Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, having a key Treasury official as chairman of the committee that is building EMU is clearly invaluable. Britain, the chancellor would argue, must play a central role in preparing EMU so that the system works well, should a future government choose to join. The Chancellor has clearly begun to favour British entry in the first wave. However, given the risk of Tory splits, having an agent of influence as chairman of the monetary committee helps Mr Clarke to pursue his strategy in a more covert way.

A key monetary committee compromise in June, over the issue of bringing Britain back inside the exchange rate mechanism, provides evidence that Sir Nigel may be helping the Chancellor to keep open the option of joining at the start. Inside the committee, other member states, led by Germany and France, were insisting that the Maastricht Treaty stipulates that Britain must be in the ERM for two years before the launch of EMU if it is to qualify to join on 1 January, 1999. The Chancellor disputed this reading of the treaty, knowing that it would corner him into rejoining the ERM soon. John Major, however, has said Britain will not rejoin the ERM in this parliament.

Mr Clarke, therefore, faced the possibility that British membership would be impossible at the launch. It was Sir Nigel who brought forward a compromise formula, under which other countries agreed that no decision need be made on the issue until Autumn 1997.

Sir Nigel is adept at switching hats, and never is that more tricky than on the occasion of European finance ministers' meetings in Brussels. Mr Clarke always travels to these with Sir Nigel - in his role as senior civil servant - and the two enjoy a plate of moules and frites together in the Brussels Grand Palace. But wearing his chairman's hat at the finance meetings, Sir Nigel is not battling for British interests so much as for the interests of the majority of member states.

There are those who believe that this loyal British official is enjoying his Brussels task so much that he has "gone native." Certainly, other Europeans are fulsome in their praise.

"He is unanimously appreciated" said a French official. The Germans are particularly supportive of Sir Nigel. "This is the most important committee of civil servants in Europe. Nigel is an excellent chairman. He is very fair. Very good at pulling things together," said a senior aide to Jurgen Stark, the German finance ministry hawk on the committee. "My feeling is, he is more supportive of EMU than the average Briton. He has huge influence. The main thing is, he takes a a positive view ... [so] that the process moves forward in a positive way."

So what kind of man is it that can play this extraordinary dual role? Is he just the archetypal civil servant, able to serve any master? Is he not also aware that he is scoring winning goals for the other side?

Sir Nigel Wicks is a very private man. Some civil servants say there is not much to know, except that he works "unusually hard." "Decent, straightforward ... Utterly grey." is another comment.

Aged 56, married with three sons, he was educated at Beckenham and Penge grammar school and Cambridge University. He worked at BP for 10 years before joining the Civil Service in 1968. He lives near Guildford, and is said to like football, although nobody can recall whether he supports a particular team.

Sir Nigel has twice been seconded to top jobs at Number Ten, first when Labour was in office and Jim Callaghan was prime minister, and then, in 1985, as principal private secretary to Mrs Thatcher. Again, nobody knows which "team" he preferred. Both Callaghan and Thatcher valued his loyalty.

Sir Nigel appears to have displayed his strongest anti-European colours during his time with Thatcher. "I don't recall him objecting in any way to the Bruges speech," said another of Thatcher's key aides, referring to her famous attack in 1988 on Euro federalism. "Like most of us he was sceptical about the ambitions of other Europeans." Today, many would say he is ensuring those European ambitions are realised on a scale Thatcher would never have dreamt of.

To experienced British diplomats the "Europeanising" of Sir Nigel does not come as a particular surprise, nor does it mean he has become personally "pro-European." Rather, he has become caught up in the European process.

To certain kinds of brains - the kind that like good-class chess or poker - the business of European decision making, of trade-offs and compromise, can be challenging. The real seduction of Sir Nigel undoubtedly began when he started chairing the monetary committee. "He was titillated by it. He enjoyed the sense of power and the dance," says a former colleague. Stronger wills than Sir Nigel's have been drawn in by "the dance." After all, Thatcher herself was "seduced" into signing the Single Act, and giving in to more majority voting. "It was the signing of the single act which got us here. It was she who dunnit," said one British diplomat. Until now, Sir Nigel has been remarkably adept at finessing his dual role.In the second half of next year, as a Treasury official, Sir Nigel will advise whichever government wins the general election on whether to join EMU or not. As chairman of the monetary committee he will, at the same time, have the task of directing the EU's joint decision on which countries qualify to enter EMU. The man who negotiated the "opt out", will, therefore, have a major influence over whether Britain can ultimately "opt in".