Thursday, 28 October 2004

Self-delusion, treachery, and how Thatcher became the biggest victim of the Euro con-men

WHEN Margaret Thatcher was toppled as Tory leader, there were many who could not hide their glee – not least her predecessor. Edward Heath rang his office with the cheerful admonition ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’ and celebrated by buying his staff champagne.

The Iron Lady had been destroyed by her seemingly uncompromising stand against European federalism – a cause Heath had spent much of his career promoting, albeit largely covertly. Small wonder that he was so happy to dance on Lady Thatcher’s grave. Today, in the public mind, she is still regarded as the European Union’s most vehement foe.

Yet the real story – as so often with the EU, an institution that was built on deception – is very different from the myth.

If Heath had deliberately set out to deceive the British people over his European policy, by pretending it was all about promoting trade rather than building a new ‘supranational’ government, the odd thing about Lady Thatcher is the extent to which she deceived herself.

For much of her Premiership, rather than being a vigilant opponent of federalism, she was its dupe. In a way that most of her admirers still fail to understand, even many of her supposed victories in Brussels were actually catastrophic defeats – not only for her, but for Britain.

Surprisingly, Thatcher had started out as a naïve enthusiast for the so-called European project. When she became Tory leader in 1975, she happily spouted the conventional wisdom about promoting peace and international co-operation.

In the referendum called by Harold Wilson’s Labour government that same year to confirm Britain’s continuing membership, she urged her supporters to vote yes.

‘It is a myth that the Community is simply a bureaucracy with no concern for the individual,’ she said. ‘It is a myth that our membership will suffocate national tradition and culture.’

Even after she became Prime Minister in 1979 she was still hailing the Community as ‘a force for freedom’. She was, though, determined to sort out the notoriously wasteful Common Agricultural Policy and to rein in Community spending.

Her troubles began when she demanded large reductions in the amount Britain paid into Europe’s coffers. Today, this is routinely portrayed as a small-minded piece of chauvinism, but it was hardly an outrageous request.

The previous Labour administration had made it, too, pointing out that Britain would soon be the Community’s largest net contributor, while ranking seventh for national income per head.

Unfortunately, as Thatcher discovered, her fellow heads of government had no intention of giving back a penny – and treated her with open contempt. The German Chancellor at the time, Helmut Schmidt, pretended to fall asleep when she was speaking.

Soon, it became accepted wisdom that Thatcher was harming her own case by her stridency. European enthusiasts tutted in disapproval at her supposedly shrewish style in Community meetings.

Again, however, the truth is that such complaints against British leaders were nothing new. The previous Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, had come in for identical criticism.

As Foreign Secretary under Wilson, putting our case in Brussels, he was described as ‘a man to whom rudeness comes naturally’. He was said to have ‘a hectoring manner in the Council of Ministers that would conspire to lose even a cast-iron case’.

In fact, like Thatcher, Callaghan had merely been trying to defend his own country’s interests in as robust a manner as possible – an example set conspicuously by France. Yet somehow, whenever Britain behaved liked this, it was she alone that was considered awkward, obstructive, and not ‘communautaire’.

Only after five years of relentless bargaining did Thatcher finally get her rebate. She claimed a famous triumph – but the truth, though still little known, is that she had been comprehensively outfoxed.

Astonishingly, included in the agreement was a crucial bit of small print designed to make us fund the so-called rebate ourselves.

This decreed that whenever Britain applied for Common Agricultural Policy funds to help our farmers, anything over an agreed threshold triggered a ‘correction mechanism’ allowing the European Commission to claw back a huge chunk of it (currently, 71 per cent).

In other words, by applying for funds from Brussels, the British Treasury would simply saddle itself with an enormous bill.

The disastrous consequence is that Britain has, wherever possible, avoided applying for funds which our hard-pressed farmers desperately need during some of the toughest times agriculture has known.

Meanwhile, other EU states dip in to the pot at will, giving our competitors a precious advantage. As ‘victories’ go, it could hardly be worse. Thatcher was caught out in equally spectacular style four years later, when she insisted on swingeing cuts in subsidies to France’s farmers.

Again, it looked at first as if she had won a great triumph. She defied the new German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, despite him banging the table and bellowing at her as if he was on the parade ground.

In return for her eventual gains, she felt she had to make a concession and accepted an increase in the Community’s budget for regional funds. It seemed a small price to pay.

But the cunning Jacques Delors, president of the Commission, had outsmarted her. With his vast new regional budget came the power to deal directly with local and regional authorities – completely bypassing national governments.

Councils were encouraged to apply directly to Europe for their money, and rushed to open their own offices in Brussels to get their snouts in the trough.

At a stroke, national governments were relegated to the status of passive bystanders – a crucial step on the road towards a federal Europe.

From that point on, Brussels would shower more than £20 billion a year on tens of thousands of projects, from unfinished Greek motorways to the World Disabled Sailing Championships in Rutland. Invariably, a condition of receiving Brussels funding was that the project should exhibit the ‘ring of stars’ flag, to convey the subliminal message that this had all been achieved through the selfless benevolence of the EU.

What such mandatory publicity never revealed, however, was that for every £1 received from Brussels, British taxpayers had already paid £2 in budgetary contributions – and then had to stump up a further £1 in so-called ‘matching’ funds.

From the European Commission’s point of view, it was a very economical form of advertising. But it was equally a very deliberate form of deceit.

What Thatcher failed to see as she blundered into these traps was just how fast momentum was developing for further integration, taking Europe in directions she had no wish to follow.

Nor did her advisers, notably her Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, warn her of the dangers.

Their biggest blunder, it turns out, was to miss the fact that, in the early 1980s, a small group of continental politicians, led by Delors, France’s President Mitterrand and an Italian MEP, Altiero Spinelli, were planning a huge new leap in integration, designed to turn the ‘Common Market’ into a ‘European Union’, complete with its own currency.

So ambitious was their project that they planned it in two stages, each needing a major new treaty. One would become known as the ‘Single European Act’, the second ‘Maastricht’.

On all this Thatcher was kept completely in the dark by her advisers, not the least the ‘Rolls Royce minds’ of the Foreign Office.

When she went to the Milan summit in 1985 she imagined she was merely going to discuss the setting up of a ‘Single Market’, a project after her own heart, to make a new push to dismantle trade barriers.

But she was ambushed by Delors and his allies. The Single Market had been used only as a ba
it– to lure her into accepting further integration.

Delors insisted that such wide-ranging reforms could not be implemented without adjusting the Community’s decision-making structure to limit national vetoes, which might otherwise hold things up.

Having lulled her into a false sense of security by supporting her initiative, he and his French and German allies bounced her into accepting an entirely new treaty, the Single European Act.

Besides opening up a whole range of policies to majority voting, so that Britain’s opposition to new proposals could simply be set aside, the treaty had a preamble in which Delors inserted a commitment to the ‘progressive realisation of economic and monetary union’.

Thatcher had been tricked into approving a considerable extension of the Community’s supranational powers, while also rubber-stamping the greatest federal dream of all.

But she continued to insist that she had given nothing away — and that the treaty was all about scrapping red tape to boost trade.

The real irony here is that, in accepting the treaty as a purely economic measure, with no political implications, she was deceiving herself in exactly the same way that Ted Heath had fooled the British public when he took them into the EEC in the first place.

Later, she realised her mistake – and slowly came alive to what had been happening under her nose all along. It was then, smarting at her own gullibility, that she began to take the increasingly outspoken stance against European integration for which she is remembered.

Even then, her capacity for self-delusion, and determination to believe that she was winning a battle she was losing, did not entirely disappear.

In 1988, she allowed Delors to seize control of a crucial committee paving the way for the introduction of the Euro – then claimed in the Commons that monetary union would not ‘necessarily involve a single currency’.

Her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, thought her comments ‘mind-boggling’. Yet he too was a master of self-delusion over Europe, to a truly bizarre degree.

A firm opponent of a single currency, every bit as staunch as Thatcher, he nevertheless became an ardent supporter of Britain’s entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, which tied together the currencies of the various member states. To hold both positions was patently absurd.

All Lawson’s key European colleagues saw the ERM primarily as the first step to a single currency. For Lawson to support one and oppose the other was to act as if the two sides of his brain were not connected.

He then embarked on an extraordinary attempt to smuggle Britain into the ERM by secretly shadowing the Deutschmark exchange rate, without daring to tell Thatcher. Eventually, by jointly threatening resignation with Howe, he forced her to accept ERM entry.

Ironically, by doing so, both men foreshadowed their own political downfall, with Lawson ending up quitting the Government anyway and Howe being demoted. The whole episode brought out the great lesson of Britain’s involvement with ‘Europe’ – that when people set out to deceive others, they end up only deceiving themselves.

Even more ironically, Britain’s entry into the ERM provoked fury from the scheme’s most fanatical supporter, Jacques Delors.

Delors believed the decision might provide the increasingly embattled Thatcher with a political lifeline, and by now his dearest wish was for her to be removed.

Accordingly, he and his fellow Eurocrats embarked on an astonishing plot to unseat the leader of one of the Community’s member states.

The opportunity soon arose. Europe was engaged in negotiations for the GATT free trade deal, and Delors and his allies decided to use them for an ambush.

At their next summit, they enraged Thatcher by steadfastly refusing to agree terms for the trade deal, on which thousands of jobs depended. Instead, they demanded Thatcher’s backing for moves to proceed from ERM to full monetary and political union.

According to Bernard Connolly, a former senior economist with the European Commission, the thinking was simple. Either Thatcher would climb down on monetary union to secure the trade agreement – in which case Delors would win, game, set and match – or she would stand alone in her defiance, dangerously isolated and ‘leaving the door open for a strike by her British opponents’.

As Delors expected, it was this second outcome that came to pass. A bewildered Thatcher could only recall: ‘They were not interested in compromise. My objections were heard in stony silence.’

For Thatcher, the summit’s refusal to discuss free trade – which she saw as the very essence of what the Community should be about – was almost beyond belief. When the meeting ended in disarray, a senior French official was asked if it had all been a failure. ‘On the contrary,’ he replied, ‘it has been an outstanding success, since it has re-established an 11-to-one situation in the Community and destabilised Thatcher at home.’

It was Thatcher’s subsequent performance in the Commons — famously snapping ‘No! No! No!’ to the proposals for political union – that prompted Howe’s resignation and the crisis that ended her Premiership.

Once more, conventional wisdom has it that she had lost the plot, slipping into brutal, monosyllabic obduracy and refusing to listen to reason. Yet the rest of her Commons speech, now long forgotten, contained an eloquent and accurate diagnosis of the Community’s folly in failing to agree a free trade agreement on which the livelihood of ordinary Europeans depended. Strangely, the Community’s refusal to compromise on that issue didn’t raise a murmur of protest. But Thatcher’s refusal to compromise on political union was seen as reckless extremism.

All this reflected the bizarre pro-European orthodoxy that had built up among Britain’s political class, whereby the Community’s rightness on every issue was an article of faith no rational person could question.

All critics, on whatever grounds, were to be dismissed as xenophobes and madmen.

THE true cost of Thatcher’s defeats would become clear only after her fall.

Most notoriously, Britain’s disastrous experiences in the ERM – and eventual ignominious departure – did more than anything else to destroy the credibility of the Tories as a party of government.

But more far-reaching still was the effect of Thatcher’s beloved Single Market. Far from ripping up red tape, it brought a deluge of it, allowing Brussels to extend its tentacles into the lives of ordinary Britons as never before.

With the excuse of ‘harmonising’ standards to ensure free competition, the European Commission became a law factory, interfering in everything from the labelling of fire-extinguishers to the design of teddy bears.

It was now, for the first time, that people began to realise the real price of subordination to Brussels.

A good example is the case of a Kent businessman named Colin Twohig, who ran a one-man operation making electronic devices for dredging work. In November 1992, Mr Twohig was informed that under European directive 89/336 he would have to send his products to an authorised ‘testing house’ for clearance. The problem was that the devices were all one-offs, each designed for a specific task. He generally sold them for around £50 – but the cost of testing each one would be £1,000 a day. At a stroke, his business was unviable.

Then there was Tom Chamberlain, who ran a family butchers in Huntingdonshire that had been in business for 100 years. European directive 91/497 informed him that he would have to build a shower and rest-room at his slaughterhouse, to accommodate ‘visiting lorry drivers’, even though most of the animals arriving there came from farms within five miles. The cost was prohibitive. Mr. Chamberlain closed down, as did the majority of Britain’s small abattoirs for similar reasons.

The result was a system that stifled markets not liberated them. The cost to business of just one proposed
new set of fire regulations was estimated at £8 billion, making it the most expensive law ever.

In agriculture too, Brussels poured out sheaves of directives to assert its growing power. The dairy industry alone was subject to more than 1,100 pieces of legislation, from the insemination of cows to the chemicals in cheese

Never before had so many criminal offences been put on the statute book in so short a time. Worst of all, democracy was going by the board.

Supervision of these laws by the elected European parliament was a sham, with speakers allowed 90 seconds to read out speeches to which no one listened.

There would be voting sessions in which MEPs recorded 400 votes in an hour and a half, frenziedly jabbing at electronic buttons to decide on issues of which they had not the faintest knowledge.

Scrutiny in Westminster was scarcely less cursory – not least because there were simply too many laws to cope with. Ultimate power of approval lay with the Council of Ministers, made up of ministers from the member states, but this was largely devoted to nodding through deals already agreed by Brussels officials. Moreover, it met behind closed doors, without any public record of what was said or how ministers had voted. The only countries with a more secretive legislative process were said to be Cuba, North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

This, then, was the legacy of Lady Thatcher, the arch-foe of European federalism. And as we will see tomorrow, her successors have only made matters worse.

Extracted from The Great Deception: A Secret History of the European Union by Christopher Booker and Richard North. Published by Continuum Books on November 30 at £20. To order a copy for £16 (plus £1.95 p&p) call 0870 161 0870

Blair’s Broken Dream

As Tony Blair and Gordon Brown clash openly on Europe, the PM is considering the ‘nuclear option’ – a referendum on quitting the EU. But will the whole Brussels fantasy world self-destruct first?

Christopher Booker and Richard North

Daily Mail 11 November 2003

AMERICANS call it ‘the elephant in the room’ – a problem so massive, and so difficult to deal with, that everyone tries to pretend it isn’t there. Rather than admit just how many areas of national policy are now being decided in Brussels, our politicians bluff and bluster that they’re still running the show.

It is a deliberate act of deceit to conceal how European directives are steadily superseding democratic laws made in Westminster. And the most worrying thing is that our supposed rulers seem to think they’re getting away with it.

One small instance is the new-look driver’s licence, introduced a few years ago. At the time, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority informed the public that the new format had been ‘decided by ministers’.

In fact, every detail, including the European Union’s ‘ring of stars’ logo, was based on the ‘Community model driving licence’ made mandatory by Brussels directive 91/493.

The same applies to the rigmarole that we must all now undergo to prove our identity for simple banking procedures.

Although customers were often baffled when they encountered the new rules, it was never explained that they were dictated by an EU directive on money laundering, number 91/308.

Another instance was a much-publicised announcement by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott that he had ordered water companies to spend £8.5 billion on ‘cleaning up Britain’s water’.

This was presented as if it was entirely his own initiative. Behind the razzamatazz, he neglected to mention that his ‘decision’ derived solely from the need to comply with Brussels directives.

It was the same when he declared in 1997 that elected assemblies were to be set up for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London.

He also announced there would be ‘development agencies’ for eight regions covering the remainder of England, which would eventually also have their own elected governments.

These initiatives were split up into five separate Acts of Parliament and presented as if they had little or no connection with each other, apart from representing New Labour’s commitment to greater democracy.

Yet the undeclared link was that all the new laws followed a Brussels masterplan to split the UK into 12 regional governments – allowing the EU to bypass Westminster and push forward its dream of federal rule.

It was strange that devotees of Europe like Prescott were so reluctant to come clean about where the power really lay.

In theory, they should have been only too happy to acknowledge that the laws they were introducing had been hatched by the system they claimed to admire.

But their willingness to extol the virtues of a supranational government evaporated when it came to admitting they no longer had the power to govern this country, and that matters crucial to us all were beyond the competence of our elected representatives.

We have no control, for example, over the contentious issue of genetically modified crops. Ministers have gone out of their way to avoid admitting that all GM policy was taken over by Brussels in 1990.

Similarly, when foot and mouth disease swept the country two years ago, politicians of all parties were at pains to conceal that the British Government no longer controlled policy over the disease – it had been handed over to Europe back in the Eighties.

As we argued in the Mail yesterday, the deceptions that have always lain at the heart of the European project are increasingly becoming self-deceptions.

Nowhere is this more sadly evident than in Tony Blair’s attitude to the single currency and the new EU constitution.

BLAIR entered Downing Street pledging to be more ‘Euro-friendly’ than the Tories he replaced. He vowed to play a leading and influential role in Europe – though whether he had any idea what this meant is unclear.

He once declared that Europe should aspire to be a ‘super-power, but not a super-state’, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a fervent belief in supranational rule has always been the project’s driving force.

To ask the EU to deviate from this course is as absurd as someone confronted by a tiger saying he would prefer it to be a sheep.

Indeed, by claiming to believe that such a change is possible, Blair reveals only the size of his blinkers.

In this respect, it is the so-called ‘Europhiles’ – rather than the EU’s critics – who are the real ‘little Englanders’, uncomprehending of what their continental partners are up to, but projecting onto them their own insular daydreams of a Europe dedicated to voluntary co-operation between nation states.

Nothing more clearly reflects Blair’s confusion than his reluctance to admit that the single currency is not simply an economic venture but a crucial step towards political union.

His European colleagues have repeatedly made the truth clear. In the words of the Italian politician Romano Prodi, current President of the European Commission: ‘The euro is just an antipasto – a starter.’

Just as strange is Blair’s apparent belief that joining the currency is crucial to Britain’s economic survival.

In fact, our economy has boomed in recent years specifically because, since our humiliating ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, we have distanced ourselves from Europe and given freedom to the Pound.

The great historical irony is that, back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was eager to join the Common Market countries because they seemed to have discovered the secret of economic success which we had lost.

Now those countries are the ones in trouble, sinking under a dead weight of ever higher taxes, labour costs and regulations – and yet the Prime Minister seems bent on dragging us into their mess.

Fortunately, his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is less enthusiastic and has laid down strict economic guidelines before Britain can join.

Blair is also hamstrung by his commitment to put the decision to the British peopl
e, two-thirds of whom he knows are hostile to such an idea.

None of this has gone unnoticed in Brussels. However hard he tries to trumpet his pro-EU credentials, the man desperate to be at the centre of Europe has found himself exiled to its edges.

More and more in his relations with Europe, Blair gives the impression of a small boy standing on the touch-line, longing to join the bigger boys on the field, but without understanding the rules of the game they are playing.

The farce of the European Constitution makes this all too painfully clear. From the moment that the convention to draft it was convened, on February 28 last year, it was an affront to democracy.

The man in charge was 76-year-old Giscard d’Estaing, a former president of France and committed federalist.

The agenda would be controlled by a 12-member praesidium, chosen by him, and he alone would decide on the ‘consensus’ to approve the final draft. There would be no vote by the national delegates.

It was a classic piece of Brussels chicanery. Giscard was a worthy successor of Jean Monnet and the other secretive founders of the European vision.

There was much talk of the parallel to the convention which met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draw up a constitution for the United States of America.

But those early Americans had been inspired by a desire to prevent the growth of a tyranny by a complex system of checks and balances.

By contrast, the whole purpose of this convention was to transfer ever more powers from the member states to a central, supranational government.

The minister leading the British delegation, Peter Hain, would later famously insist that the constitution was simply a ‘tidying-up exercise’.

In fact, bubbling with an enthusiasm he subsequently denied, he had told his fellow delegates: ‘Our task is nothing less than the creation of a new constitutional order for a new united Europe.’

It was only when Giscard published the first 16 articles of his draft Constitution that Hain realised that the EU was trying to extend its control to economic and foreign policy.

Not surprisingly, Gordon Brown was less than pleased with the proposals for the euro zone to have its own finance minister.

When British public opinion belatedly awoke to the dangers, Giscard graciously made a concession by removing the word ‘federal’ from his draft.

Much was made of this by Blair and his allies, as demonstrating that the Union no longer had any ambitions to become a ‘federal super-state’.

It was left to former Italian prime minister Guiliano Amato, another vice-chairman of the convention, to put matters in their proper perspective.

‘Adjectives are used by commentators,’ he said. ‘What we are interested in is the substance.’

And the substance was more and more power for Brussels, as was shown when the second part of Giscard’s draft included the controversial Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Under such headings as ‘Dignity’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Solidarity’, the charter gave workers extensive rights over their employers, including the right for the armed forces and essential services to be members of trades unions and go on strike.

When it was first proposed, a Labour minister had dismissed this charter as having no more legal significance than a copy of the Beano. Now it was close to becoming Community law.

LAST JUNE – ominously on Friday the 13th – Giscard unveiled his (almost) final draft of the constitution. Trembling with emotion, he declared: ‘This result is imperfect but it is more than could have been hoped.

‘Instead of a half-formed Europe, we have a Europe with a legal identity, with a single currency, common justice, a Europe which is about to have its own defence.’

Astonishingly, Blair hailed the document as ‘a victory for Britain’, although he conceded that there were still battles to be fought.

But in reality, all he will have to argue about in future summits is whether he can hold on to Britain’s vetoes on tax and social security policy. Almost everything else has been conceded.

Blair has resolutely opposed calls for a referendum on the constitution, knowing his chance of victory would be just as slim as with the single currency.

Hints are already emerging, however, of an alternative strategy. In May this year, he declared: ‘We should decide as a country whether we want to go forward in the European Union or not. I think the debate really does come down to that in the end.’

With those words, Blair was testing the water for what his staff call the ‘nuclear option’ – a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU. This, after all, is the only referendum he might possibly hope to win.

Should such a battle come, much will no doubt be made of the threat that withdrawal would pose to Britain’s continued trade with her European partners. In fact, we have consistently run a trade deficit with the rest of the EU, who sell far more to us than we do to them.

It would hardly be in the interests of our neighbours to stop such a lucrative arrangement, regardless of the fact that the rules of the World Trade Organisation would make punitive tariffs to keep Britain out virtually impossible.

Far more intractable would be the problem of unravelling all those areas of British law and public administration which have now become inextricably entangled with the EU.

For a start, there would be 97,000 pages of directives and regulations, all of which are now in force in Britain, in many cases having replaced old national laws.

The task of rewriting a substantial part of Britain’s statute book would itself be monumental, quite apart from having to rethink and reorganise vast areas of national policy – from agriculture and fisheries to regional government – to run along lines that suit British interests rather than the EU’s.

The unravelling process would also reveal the astonishing – and still largely unrecognised – way in which Brussels has increasingly gained direct control over the British civil service.

In the last few years, the Commission has been quietly setting up a series of European ‘agencies’ covering one sector of public life after another, with the power to direct existing national officials behind the scenes.

The European Foods Safety Authority, the European Environment Agency, the European Fisheries Agency, the European Railways Agency, the European Chemicals Agency – the list grows ever longer, and each one is there to order about civil servants nominally employed by national governments.

All the officials continue to be paid for by the taxpayers of the country concerned, who are blithely unaware their civil service is no longer answerable to their own politicians.

Thus the European Commission can act as a super-government without having to become a super-state, because the nation states are increasingly there just to do its supranational bidding.

Cutting through this tangled web would be nightmarishly hard – although it no doubt could be done. But the real question is whether the EU itself can survive in anything like its present form.

The whole edifice is showing signs of crumbling under its own weight. The very laws that Brussels spews out – expressly to extend its own influence and power – are destroying the economies on which its future depends.

The euro, for decades just a distant dream, has arrived at last, but scarcely a serious economist in the world is prepared to rule out the possibility that the whole experiment will collapse in chaos within a few years.

The straitjacket of a single currency is imposing severe strains on countries such as Portugal, Ireland and Greece, which are beset by problems their governments no longer have the power to control.

Meanwhile, the bigger beasts – France, Germany and Italy – are now flagrantly breaking the rules on government deficits.

This summer the entire economy of the euro-zone went formally into recession for the first time. The one-si
ze-fits-all system was clearly failing.

The whole structure of the union is wobbling, too. Its membership has expanded dramatically with what was originally ‘the Six’ now being 15, with 10 more entrants due next year and still others waiting in the wings.

The newcomers are from the poorer fringes of the continent – mainly Eastern Europe – and none of the existing members have any appetite to fund their development (indeed, they simply want to use them as new markets for their own goods).

A two-tier EU may well be the only solution – an inner club dominated by France and Germany surrounded by a ring of ‘second class’ members. But this would be a blatant denial of the full union that has been the goal for half a century.

Enlargement will bring serious new problems, demanding practical solutions rather than just an insistence that everything can be solved by even greater integration, which has always been the Brussels mantra.

Is the end of the project in sight? Is that famous ‘train’ no one could afford to miss, particularly Britain, about to hit the buffers?

Certainly, whatever type of Europe evolves in the years ahead, it is likely to be characterised by retreat and retrenchment rather than broad-front advances along the old lines.

Sooner perhaps rather than later, the fantasy of the great European project will crumble, destroyed by all those contradictions which in its mad ambition it had failed to foresee and which it could never have hoped to resolve.

But if it does fall, the devastation it will leave behind it will be terrible – a wasteland from which it will take many years for the people of Europe to emerge.

Extracted from The Great Deception: A Secret History of the European Union by Christopher Booker and Richard North. Published by Continuum Books.

First published in the Daily Mail 10 November 2003