Boris Johnson

Commissioner PZtain fights back

Chris Patten tells Boris Johnson that Europe and America have profoundly different cultures

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Chris Patten is used to rudeness. When he was the last governor of Hong Kong, the Chinese used to call him a 'jade-faced prostitute' and a 'tango-dancer for a thousand years', and other baffling insults. In these very pages he is called EU Marshal Chris PZtain, a byword for general sell-outery. To the neo-conservatives of Washington, he is the consummate Euro-weenie, ever warning us of the dangers of American 'unilateralism' and the risks of duffing up Iraq.

To a certain kind of British Conservative polemicist, he shows an excessive willingness to listen to the claims of Palestinian terrorists and Irish republican murderers. In some quarters he has never been forgiven for telling Mrs Thatcher, on that dreadful day in November 1990, that the game was up and that she was finished as prime minister.

He is, in short, the ultimate wet Tory 'grandee', or 'big beast', as the species is often described. He is the kind of politician - one could add the names of Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd - with whom Sir Max Hastings might think it worthwhile to have lunch at Wiltons, or perhaps even go on a cruise to the Galapagos. He is still a kind of hero to some parts of the Tory party; and much admired by those, such as this writer, who don't always agree with him.

That is because he is a big man; not just in the physical sense, though he has told us himself how he gorges on goose fat from his French farmhouse, and his face, in consequence, is more pink than jade. He is also what Sir Max would call a heavy-hitter, a man who thinks big, resting his blond-white-thatched skull on his fist and massively excogitating his ideas.

He is big, too, in the sense that he is welcoming to those who sometimes tease him.

'Hello, old bean,' he says as I enter his office, hung with black-and-white photos of his three lovely daughters.

'Hello, Commissioner,' I say, since we are on the 12th floor of the Charlemagne building. It is late afternoon in Brussels, and the fonctionnaires are starting to knock off after a hard day of bunging tobacco subsidy to the Greeks and devising the Single European Condom (true story). The shades are lengthening, and it seems right to begin with a brief discussion - a friendly tussle - about the great Conservative party to which we both belong.

He is still a Tory, you will be heartened to know. He wants Iain Duncan Smith to be our next prime minister. He is not wholly convinced, however, about the tactics. He thinks it a mistake for Iain to advertise his track record as a Maastricht rebel, and that it might be an idea to bring some more Europhiles into the shadow Cabinet.

But we are in agreement - I almost weep with pleasure to report - on some eternal Conservative verities. 'I don't think the Conservative party can beat Labour by promising to spend more money. That's crazy.'

Yeah, I say; and what about the euro, eh? Hasn't the Tory critique been vindicated? You've got the French, the Germans, the Portuguese all busting out of Maastricht's corsets, running excessive deficits, and nothing and no one can stop them. Wasn't that always the basic problem: that there is no central European authority to guarantee the currency, and protect it from being debauched?

He agrees. 'The most important issue is the one that you've raised, which is that we in the Commission try to apply the rules, and then the finance ministers say get stuffed; and I think that touches on what is always the central issue in Europe, which is the question of political will.'

But is the Commission really trying to apply the rules? Or has it decided that the rules don't matter? Romano Prodi called the Stability Pact 'stupid'.

'I think what he was calling stupid was the fact that we try to apply the rules, and then the finance ministers tell us they're not going to take any notice.'

That's outrageous, isn't it?

'I don't think it makes very much sense.'

But Chris is not commissioner for the euro. He runs the foreign affairs side of things; and it is his remarks about the Arab-Israeli problem that have earned particular abuse. He entered some caveats about the War on Terror, and was instantly baptised 'Chris PZtain' by Mark Steyn, our American editor. What did he think of that?

'It's wonderful to find a Canadian warmonger, isn't it?'

Steady on, I say. We can't deprecate the martial valour of the Canadians. What about Vimy Ridge? The Raid on Dieppe?

The Commissioner instantly and prudently flings his tanks into reverse. No, no, he says, his quarrel is really with the hard-nosed neo-cons who seem to be on the rise in the Pentagon and the State Department. 'It can't reasonably be regarded as anti-Americanism to disagree with the views of Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz; there are millions of Americans who criticise their views as well. These are people who criticised the thought that you should trust Gorbachev. They were against Strategic Arms Limitation; they were against the Madrid and Oslo processes; they regarded Netanyahu as a wimp; and they argued for Israel exercising its political authority in the West Bank; and they even, one or two of them, talked about moving the Palestinians out of the West Bank.

'Look at Israel and Palestine. We all know what the solution will have to be. It must be a two-state solution behind secure borders, and Israel has to be assured by the Arab world that they accept Israel's right to exist and prosper; the borders will probably be based on '67; the Palestinians will have to give up the notion that they can swamp the state of Israel with returning refugees; there'll have to be an end to the settlements and a withdrawal. And finally, Jerusalem will be the capital of both states. What in that mix is hostile to Israel's interests?

'Nothing is commensurate with suicide bombers murdering innocent men, women and children. But you've got the other side, a government whose Prime Minister made that famous walk on the Temple Mount. Which of his predecessors 30 or 40 years ago would have done that? He was against the peace treaty with Jordan, against the peace treaty with Egypt, against Madrid, against Oslo.'

But if you had an electorate facing suicide bombers, you'd feel pretty angry with Brussels for giving money to the Palestinians, with no strings attached?

'We're not giving money to the Palestinians without strings attached. That's complete balls.'

But why do you give any money to the Palestinian Authority?

'Now here's an interesting point for you. The Israelis have started giving some of the blocked funds that they should have been paying to the Palestinian Authority for the past two years, and what instruments are they using? Exactly the ones that we've created: same bank account, same conditionality. So odd that it's somehow wicked for the Europeans to do it, but fine for the Israelis to do it.

'It is a total fabrication that the European Union has funded textbooks with anti-Semitic arguments within them in Palestinian schools. It is a complete lie.'

But it's true that you've given money to shore up a regime that actively teaches the hatred of Jews.

'We support teaching programmes in Palestinian schools which try to encourage kids to take a moderate view of life, and then they come out of school and they see a bloody great Israeli tank come down the road. Did you see the figures the other day for the number of Palestinian kids who've been shot during curfews?

'Is it in your experience usually the case that in all these terribly bloody feuds, all the right is on one side? There are people, as you know, in our media and in the American media who, unless you affect to argue that or believe that, denounce everything you say. When I was in the States in May I read a couple of pieces, one by the aptly named Charles Krauthammer and the other by George Will, arguing that Europe was deeply anti-Semitic and that, after the final solution phase one , we were now going for the final solution phase two. And I have to say I find that sort of argument deeply offensive. I mean, it shows, among other things, such an ignorance about Europe. If we argued that a few Ku-Klux Klan burnings of churches in the United States demonstrated that the Ku-Klux Klan was on the march to the White House, American friends would regard us as being off our trolley.'

The last time I met Chris Patten was at a conference in Italy, where he startled me by saying that there was a cultural divide between America and Europe; and he does not resile from that now. 'I think we have reached different conclusions about how to reconcile democracy, capitalism and the rule of law. There is a greater emphasis on social solidarity in Europe, even in our own island home: look at our National Health Service. There is a greater emphasis on individual opportunity in the United States - Americans find acceptable levels of social inequity which would shock us in Europe.

'If you look, Boris, at the social indicators in Washington on child mortality, for instance, they're the sort of figures which are quite familiar to the World Bank from developing countries. The other side of that is that there is more opportunity in the United States, and I think it's quite difficult to say which is morally superior; but I don't believe they're exactly the same, and I think it would be extremely difficult to win an election in Europe, for example, arguing for a 14 per cent increase in defence spending and cuts in health and education. I don't think any political party, including our own dear party in the United Kingdom, could win an election on that basis.'

But if you asked the British people, do you have more culturally in common with people of Italy than you do with the people of America, what do you think they would answer?

'They'd almost certainly say America, since they speak the same language. Who are the best novelists in the world? Where is the best poetry written? Where is the best journalism of great respect? Where are the best universities?'

But aren't American universities better precisely because they don't rely on state funding?

'Boris, I'm not saying that market solutions aren't usually the best ways of allocating resources; what I'm saying is that we have a completely different historical and cultural experience to the Americans over the last few years. Different and historically grimmer, and worse; we almost destroyed liberal values in the last century and the United States helped to rescue them for us, twice. Do I find America exciting? I got into politics in the United States; otherwise I'd have fetched up as a graduate trainee at the BBC. I must have been to the United States every year for the past 30 or 40 years.

'It is a very good thing that this super-duper power has overwhelmingly benign purposes, and it's the first imperial power without an empire. But if Europe wants to be taken seriously, as a counterweight to America, we must spend more money on defence. Otherwise our aspirations in the security field will remain what mediaeval theologians used to call an idea in the mind of God. We need sufficient increases so that we can provide our own airlift capacity, military telecommunications, special forces, and so that we are able to develop rather more precision-guided munitions than we have got.'

That's what Patten really envies in America, it seems: precision-guided munitions.