Bernard Ingham: They don’t like it up ’em: a flash of UK cold steel disturbs Europe’s dictators

Have your say

WE live in momentous times. Belgium has just acquired a government after 541 days without one. Is this wise, I ask. The UN’s climate change jamboree in Durban, like its 16 predecessors, succeeded only in boosting carbon emissions.

The Russians are starting another noisy revolution and at long last a British Prime Minister has again told Europe where, in The Sun’s immortal words – “Up Eurs” – to put its intransigence.

In fact, David Cameron has not actually exercised his veto. He has not yet been presented with a new treaty to wave it at. But they have got the message. They will have to find another way of integrating and, if they can, of hurting Britain.

As Corporal Jones would say, they don’t like it up ‘em. A firm, decisive British “No” is like a flash of cold steel in these refined European circles where everybody is expected to do as the Franco-German dictatorship tells them.

There are, of course, certain consequences flowing from this insouciance and I feel impelled by my experience of 31 consecutive European summits to discuss them for the public’s enlightenment.

In the 1980s, under Boadicea’s leadership, Britain only acquired friends at G7 and Nato summits graced by Ronald Reagan or George Bush Snr. In Europe and at the six Commonwealth conferences I attended we were mostly beyond the pale.

“What is it like always to be in a minority of one?” I was once asked in Brussels. Come to think of it, my questioner could have been our current Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, who then displayed his infallibility in the press corps. I replied: “It is wonderfully stimulating, especially when you are right.”

That was guaranteed to shut them up for a bit. The very thought that I, as their official British briefer, might be enjoying my “loneliness” was terribly galling.

They were also helpless in the face of Atilla the Hen’s notoriety. There is nothing more newsworthy than a notorious leader. As a result, I played to full houses – and Margaret Thatcher to standing room only audiences.

Far from being isolated, Cameron, even without Thatcher’s advantage as a comely woman, has just become the focus of attention. They will be hanging on his every word. This man is now hot news personified.

Of course, in Europe where even journalists go native, much of this attention will be hostile. But that is neither here nor there. If you stick to your guns – as Thatcher did for more than four years before she got her two-thirds budget rebate at Fontainebleau – you confound the lot of them.

In Kuala Lumpur in 1989, the Commonwealth went off the deep end over her sustained hostility to sanctions against apartheid South Africa by refusing to include a summary of her opposition in their communiqué, so she issued her own. The institution’s rivets positively rattled at me over this outrageous independence.

The second consequence of Cameron’s “No” is a certain nastiness among the Franco-Germans and their hangers on. With their understandable inferiority complexes, they like to take us down a peg or two and mount ambushes as the Italians did over, yes, more European integration in 1990.

All this leads to ritualistic shroud waving among British Europhiles and clichéd talk about missing the bus, leaving an empty seat at the negotiating table and losing influence.

The influence Britain has exercised in a Europe of 11, 15 or now 27 member-states has always been a mystery to me when we could never rely on a single ally.

Look where the UK-sympathetic Swedes and Czechs went last week – with the herd.

You might also imagine from all this doom-mongering that Britain’s relatively open market is of no moment to the other 26 nations. They would soon start squealing if we conceived it our patriotic duty to avoid French and Italian wine, Continental cheese and German sausages and cars.

Don’t worry. It won’t come to this. For all their petulance, Europe needs Britain in the tent. We can thus be choosy about the tent on offer. And that rather than Europe per se is what really worries the British. It is not the right sort of tent yet. And worse still it is bankrupt, too.

Let this be a warning to Cameron: Europe progressively lost its fear of Margaret Thatcher when, with reservations, she went along with the Single European Act and then, with political options running out, agreed to enter the ill-fated Exchange Rate Mechanism.

No, non, nein makes ’em sit up and take notice in Euroland.