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Nick Booth: We wanted Europe a la carte but we got the rip-off tourist menu


For half a decade EC politicians have parroted the lie that Britain expects to ‘order a la carte’. Can we have a fresh restaurant metaphor please? Preferably one that’s accurate.

To be honest, we stumbled on the place by accident.

It was never our intention to dine at the Restaurant EU but we just sort of fell into it. Did we jump or were we pushed? I can’t remember now, there was so much going on at the time.

The original plan was to join a trade convention – The Common Market – and that was what we set out for. The colour supplements raved over it and it promised all kinds of benefits. When Labour’s Tony Benn, a politician formerly known as Viscount Stansgate, declared he was against it, that made our minds up. Benn ‘identified’ himself as working class (in the style of ‘black activist’ Rachel Dolezal), but had a track record of second guessing everything wrong. So if Tony Benn was against the Common Market, you could guarantee it would be good for the British public.

I won’t bore you with the whole journey, but we got horribly lost. With typical British arrogance, none of us had bothered to learn any foreign dialects. We just expected everyone to speak our language. They do, but only when it’s to their advantage. Our lack of language skills renders us powerless.

Still, it makes a huge difference if you at least try to say S’il vous plait and merci. But we didn’t. As we were to discover, it makes all the difference into what sort of circles you are invited into. And what your choices are.

We weren’t to know, but they’d long since re-named the Common Market, so we were looking for the wrong thing. We knew what we wanted, but we couldn’t put a name to it and, even if we could spell it, we couldn’t articulate it.

Shouting didn’t help. We tried speaking English slowly, in a foreign accent but that was no more effective. (It only seems to work for football people like Steve McClaren and Joey Barton.)

Eventually, one nice man took pity on us and led us into a shambolic room and laid out a table for us. None of us really know what was going on, but he seemed so confident and assured we just sort of went along.

It looked quite promising a first. At the best tables they were all Germanic, naturally, but the French speakers seemed to have got themselves close to the centre of things.

At this stage another Tony (Blair) seemed to emerge as our leader. It turns out he’d been to Fettes College – Scotland’s Eton – so he was brimming with confidence. However, his so-called ‘fluent French’ cut no ice with the management. (Tony was to later disappear with some very rum sorts who were murkier than Max Clifford’s client list).

Eventually, after what seemed like a decade, a minion wandered over and dropped some paperwork on our table and disappeared again.

It turned out to be a very limited menu. And the prices were astronomical! The Fish Course – ‘Quota De La Night Mer’ if I’m translating correctly – seemed to be a dish served cold on the British that would cost us billions of pounds. The Beef was even more ruinous.

Tony said they’d obviously given us the tourist menu, and wandered off to ‘negotiate at the heart of the EC’. The next time we saw him, he’d fallen in with some very shady characters.

Eventually we got the chance to make a request. “Can we have what they’re having?” we asked, pointing at the Germans, who seemed to be living the highlife.

“You cannot wander in here and expect an a la carte menu,” the waiter thundered. “This is not a restaurant where you can pick and choose what you want.” Since this ‘minister’ (as he called himself) was from Poland, we assumed that choice was a relatively new concept to him.

Much later (it was 2012 by now) a charming East German called Angela said almost exactly the same. You British cannot pick and choose! Then someone else – French this time – used precisely the same phrase! A pattern was emerging. It was almost as if there was an agreed line.

I think what we were trying to say was that we wanted the same service everyone else seemed to be getting. But we didn’t articulate it very well. Language skills are critical in this situation – not just for expressing yourself but ingratiating yourselves in the right circles!

(I noticed that the Germans, Dutch and Austrians were allowed to smoke in the bar, whereas we were told it was verbotten by EC regulations).

This was where our inarticulacy floored us. We didn’t want a special a la carte menu. We just wanted the same rights as everyone else. Instead, they kept giving us the rip off tourist menu – and threatening us with all kinds of financial penalties.

Finally, after a bit of persistence, ‘Emmanuel’ wandered over. By now it was 2015. Mr Macron, according to his name badge, was the French Economy Minister. Instead of listening to us, he just seemed to parrot the same well-rehearsed phrases as his colleagues. “You cannot expect the a la carte menu,” he repeated. He didn’t seem to be talking to us though – he seemed to be playing to the gallery. Why would he be doing that?

At this stage Tony was nowhere to be seen, Gordon had smashed his Nokia on the wall, his compatriot Nicola was trying to go native and, rather unhelpfully, Nigel and Suzanne started squabbling with each other. Which just left Dave, who reminded me a lot of Tony. He insists he can sort it all out.

I’m dreading the bill. What would happen if we did a runner?

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Nick Booth
Nick Booth
Nick Booth is a freelance writer.

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