Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

At the weekend, I was in Frederick the Great's palace at Potsdam, attending a conference inspired by the indefatigable George Weidenfeld. As the elections approach, excitement is beginning to mount that Germany might be run by a woman for the first time. Angela Merkel must be irritated by the comparisons with Mrs Thatcher, because they disadvantage her both with people who hate the Iron Lady and with those who love her. Mrs Merkel is divorced, consensual, down-played, not very smartly dressed. But the coming of a woman on the public scene is always interesting because it still provokes reactions which are odder than the people who have them realise. Last week Chancellor Schröder's wife Doris attacked Mrs Merkel, alleging that her childlessness made her incapable of understanding modern women. Despite having been married four times, Schröder himself is childless (his wife's children are somebody else's), but this is not held against him. Actually, Mrs Merkel's lack of children makes her almost typical of Germany's extraordinarily unreproductive indigenous population. One expert has calculated that, by 2020, 65-70 per cent of those over 60 in Germany will have no grandchildren. The German fear of Turkish entry into the European Union (which half-tacitly dominates this election) has everything to do with these numbers.

Tomy alarm, I realised that I first attended conferences of this 'Whither Europe?' variety more than 20 years ago.

They have since taken me to lovely places -- Granada, Venice, Versailles, Oxford -- and introduced me to interesting people, but their agenda has been rather dismayingly similar.

Potsdam brought home how much their tone has at last changed. At the first such occasion I attended (Cambridge in, I think, 1984) I remember the chairman, Shirley Williams, preventing the only Eurosceptics, Peter Shore and myself, getting the matter debated at all. For years and years, 90 per cent of the British and 100 per cent of the Continentals attending were Euroenthusiasts. Then came a period when the subject could no longer be ignored, but was still received with pursed lips. Today, the sceptics are almost dominant, and include lots of younger Germans. Liberal centre-Right papers like Die Welt maintain commitment to the EU in some form, but hate the bureaucracy, the protectionism and hostility to freedom. Gunther Verheugen, a European Commission vice-president, gave a speech putting the Brussels line (onward with more of the same), which was received with pretty well open contempt.

Actually, I missed Mr Verheugen's speech myself, thanks to our exciting AngloSaxon combination of a booming economy and a lousy infrastructure. Leaving a mere three hours to drive 70 miles to Heathrow, I found the M25 completely frozen by one overturned lorry, and missed the plane.

British Airways said on the phone that it would cost me £685 extra (economy) to get the later flight and that my return booking would be automatically destroyed, though a compromise was later reached. At Heathrow there was no warning to passengers about the continuing catering dispute. I had not eaten before the flight, and found there was nothing, not even a biscuit, on it. 'Do British Airways never serve food?' asked the German passenger next to me. …

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