Bernard Ingham: We carry little weight in the EU’s corridors of power

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WITH the best will in the world, I doubt whether Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have much new to tell us in tonight’s TV debate.

The Deputy Prime Minister and the insouciant Ukip leader may well add to the gaiety of the nation, but the sober are unlikely to find their hearts beating faster in anticipation of the promised land.

We know that Nick Clegg is a European first and a Briton second and that Nigel Farage wants home rule instead of governance from Brussels. Nigel wants out of the EU tomorrow; Nick never.

Personally, I could not be induced to vote for either of them. Clegg, while correct on the need to reduce Britain’s deficit and debt, is otherwise mostly at odds with the gut instincts of the nation. He has also proved to be a treacherous beast in government.

Leaving aside Farage’s maverick adoration of Vladimir Putin, he is generally in tune with most of the nation’s feelings or prejudices but is likely to remain an entertaining gadfly on the political stage, buzzing merrily, guzzling assiduously and generally enjoying himself without the inconvenience of responsibility.

When abroad, yearning for the Euro-election hustings, he must recite Robert Browning’s: “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there”.

Tomorrow we shall be left with Wordsworth’s host of dancing daffodils and little else to guide us about re-establishing a new relationship with the EU.

This is therefore perhaps the time for me to try to see the way forward on the basis of attending 31 consecutive European summits in the 1980s with that turbulent priestess, Margaret Thatcher, of whom some of her colleagues would have been gladly rid.

Earlier I had attended EU Energy Councils with that arch-EU opponent, 
the late Tony Benn.

He sought to compensate for his documented hostility to the whole show by ordering me to compile a substantial account of his presidency on the basis of my shorthand notes of his meetings.

The resultant publication caused little fuss but I cannot say it warmed the cockles of European hearts. They still eyed our North Sea oil and gas greedily.

Now, I am the first to recognise that my entire experience of EU summits was with, at best, Eurosceptic Ministers. Benn had more charm; Thatcher was always reaching for her handbag. But neither was built to win friends and influence people in the EU.

Which brings me to the 64,000 Euro question: just how much influence does the UK wield in Brussels and other European capitals? I ask because the Business for Britain pressure group has just claimed that Britain has been defeated every time – 55 in all – that it has voted against Brussels’ proposals in the last 18 years.

That takes us back to 1996 – well past the Benn and Thatcher years. This suggests that neither UK smarm – otherwise known as diplomacy – nor scepticism cuts much ice in the corridors.

In my experience, while recognising that the Foreign Office does have its uses, you will only get your way in Europe if it suits others.

The arithmetic reinforces that. We are now down to wielding only just over eight per cent of the vote in an EU that is much enlarged since the days of Benn and Thatcher.

So, let Thatcher be a lesson to all of us. It is true that she won two-thirds of a loaf after a bruising five years to reduce the UK budget contribution.

For the rest, she was ground down under the relentless march of federalism and its associated chicanery, even to the point of joining, much against her will, the EU exchange rate mechanism.

Indeed, by resolving the British budget contribution, signing the Single European Act to get into French and German financial markets and seeking 
to grow the EU (in order to dilute it) she gave the damned juggernaut the confidence to advance after years of inertia. The only problem was that it advanced in the wrong direction – towards a federal United States of 

That is still its goal. But while Clegg will do everything to reach it, Farage will do everything in his power to get Britain out of it.

David Cameron, unlike the paralysed Ed Miliband, has pledged to pursue the middle way by seeking to re-negotiate the terms of our membership, with a referendum by the end of 2017 if he wins next year’s election.

Good luck to him. He will need it to come up with anything worthwhile. We shall soon see that we count for perhaps less in Europe than Clegg and Farage do at home. Don’t expect the EU to value us highly.