A few days I went out to Brussels as part of my preparations to take over from Roger Helmer as an MEP when he retires in January. Now, I would like to tell you that my time was taken up with serious discussions about high politics, Britain's future in the EU and international finance. In fact, I spent most of the visit being shown where the nearest dry cleaners is, where a supermarket can be found and which cafe to avoid as it serves the worst tea in Brussels – which is saying something.
I did get announced at a formal meeting of the ECR Group (to which Conservative MEPs belong), but that was about it so far as hard politics went.
But at lunch on my second day I found myself at a table with a Greek chap. I wondered if it would be considered dreadfully tactless to bring up the vexed question of Greece and the Euro. I need not have bothered, he brought it up himself.
His key concern was not whether Greece would stay in the Euro or not, but whether Greece would be booted out of the EU entirely were it to leave the Euro. This, he declared would be very bad news indeed. His argument went something like this.
For centuries Greece has been mired in a political and business culture dominated by corruption, nepotism and inefficiency. Success has long depended on neither talent nor on hard work, but on paying bribes and manipulating family connections. But since joining the EU that has been gradually changing. The EU regulations have been forcing the Greek establishment to introduce reforms that are making Greece a better place for business and for opportunity. If Greece were to leave the EU, my new friend thought, then the bad old days would return – in spades.
Perhaps more relevant to us in the UK was his equally forceful view that Britain must not leave the EU. Incidentally, I can't imagine why he brought up this issue. I was sitting next to Roger Helmer, but that surely had nothing to do with it.
His reasoning here was that it was the presence of Big Britain that ensured that the EU regulations were (at least in his view) pro-free markets, anti-regulation and anti-corruption. We might view the EU as a pit of waste, inefficiency and pointless bureaucracy but to our Greek it was a paragon of efficiency and honesty. If Britain were to leave, the EU would gradually be taken over by the southern grafters and once again Greece would slide back into the bad old days. The only difference being that the decline would take some 20 years rather than 20 minutes.
I was reminded of the speech made by Prime Minister William Pitt in 1805 just after news arrived that Nelson had defeated the French-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, and that therefore Britain was safe from invasion by Napoleon.
"Europe is not to be saved by any one man," he said. "England has saved herself by her exertions and will, I trust, save Europe by her example."
As it was then, so it is now. The biggest favour we can do Europe is not to pour billions of pounds into the hapless bailout funds, nor to meekly agree to treaty changes to allow the 17 Eurozone states to integrate still deeper into the abyss. No. The best thing that Britain can do for Europe is to set an example of economic rectitude. We need to cut the budget deficit, reduce our national debt, cut back on regulations strangling businesses – and use the opportunity of the coming treaty changes to repatriate to Britain the powers that we need to make Britain a shining example of what a country can achieve by hard work, honesty and free markets.
Then maybe we can once again save Europe by our example.