Saturday, August 07, 2004

We are all xenophobes now

The latest excrescences about Eurosceptic xenophobia in the Daily Telegraph, delivered by our erstwhile Europe minister, Dennis MacShane – aka Dennis Matyjaszek - bring to mind several amusing incidents in the European parliament.

Late in the term, our group was approached by a young, rather attractive Polish student, by the name of Agnieszca. She was anxious to work as a stagière for us: as an Erasmus student at the local Strasbourg university, taking a Masters in political science, she was expected to do a session in the parliament.

I took her under my wing and terrifying she proved to be. Arriving early in the morning, she simply devoured work. Rarely did she have lunch, preferring to work through the break, and about eight in the evening she would come to my office and ask, in apologetic tones, whether it would be all right for her to go home. She spoke three languages fluently, could write a competent report in any of them, and was a mine of information about Polish politics. If the Poles take over Europe, it will come as no surprise to me.

Anyhow, one day she arrived at the office complaining of a rash of itchy, red marks on her skin, displaying the spots all the way up her arms. Living in the university digs, she put these down to some little insects she had seen in her room, so I asked her to describe them in detail.

From her description it was immediately obvious what they were; our old friend Cimex lectularis, better known to all and sundry as the bed bug – and forever etched in my memory from when I brought a pregnant female (bed bug, that is) home to my office to study (don't ask), and it escaped into the bedroom.

Getting rid of these pests is not easy – they hide during the daytime behind the woodwork, immune from pesticides - so fairly major works are needed to clear them out. Thus, I dispatched Agnieszca back to the university with instructions to ask for a new room, and advice that they should treat her existing one.

Some hours later, I got a text message on my mobile from her – cryptic it was. "The French are worse than the bed bugs", it read. When she got back to the office, she told her sorry tale – the fonctionnaires had been totally unsympathetic and had merely dismissed our Agnieszca with a can of insecticide spray – to which, she had told them, she was allergic – and had absolutely refused to change her room.

Some many weeks later, I was in the staff coffee lounge in the parliament – apartheid being practised in this most egalitarian of establishments, to the extent that staff bums are not allowed to soil the seats of the MEP lounges. I was discussing with our multinational group the latest developments on CAP reform and, once again, the French attempts to sabotage them.

As the discussion drew to a conclusion, I pronounced rather more loudly than I should have, "I suppose there are few problems in this world that would not be solved by the extermination of the French race".

In the crowded lounge, there was a sudden silence – one of those occasions when, quite literally, you could have heard a pin drop. Expecting to be seized and Frog-marched off (it was France, after all) to be indicted for xenophobia – or even worse, Francophobia – I looked around hesitantly to see what fate awaited me. To my surprise, I noted a considerable number of the assembled throng nodding in silent agreement.

In my hotel in Strasbourg, I spent many riotous nights in company with our French host, his vivacious and delightful wife, a couple of Belgian socialists – with whom, from my supposedly right-wing stance, I hugely enjoyed trading insults each morning – and a gaggle of French locals. The company and the entertainment went a considerable way to compensating for the mind-numbing dullness of the parliament.

On one day in particular, our conviviality was measurably enhanced by my finding a 100 Deutschmark note in the parliament, which le patron happily changed into Francs (at, no doubt, a usurous rate) for me, and then took them all back over the bar as the evening wore on. But that same man was behind the counter a few days later when a couple of German tourists came in, bearing a fistful of Deutschmarks, asking for refreshment. The hôtel did not change currency, they were brusquely told, and sent packing.

I could recount many more such curious tales, most arising in that melting pot of nationalities of the European parliament, which seems to emphasise rather than submerge national distinctiveness – and rivalries. But the most surreal experience I ever had was after I had spent the day up a tree in the Pyrenees with six armed Basque gunmen (again, don't ask).

That evening, at an interminable civic dinner in some god-forsaken provincial town hall, one of the more villainous-looking of the group leant over the table, his face inches (or centimetres) from mine, and hissed: "I hate Englishmen." He then pulled back, laughed and said, "but I like you!"

After all that, Mr Matyjaszek, who seems so diffident about his father's nationality – or at least his name – that he adopted his mother's, has the gall to proclaim that us "right-wing Eurosceptics" are "latent xenophobes".

Actually, I don't know what my stories prove, but one thing I do know. Dennis Matyjaszek is a prat. Even if his name was Dennis MacShane, he'd still be a prat.

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