No metaphor is more current than that of the level playing field. It is surprising that a nation such as ours, priding itself on being sporting, should suddenly behave as though such desirable surfaces had always been the norm. Anyone who has batted, bowled, kicked a ball or run with one, knows that level fields were always the exception. In practice, the pitch's peculiarities were there to be exploited by those with local knowledge. So it is with the rest of Europe and what else would we expect? But a characteristic of cliches is that they seal off thought or recollection. When we talk of those level fields we overlook the fact that throughout history the British have played on bumpy surfaces and triumphed despite them.
The thing about the European turf is that there is nowhere else for us to play. If people such as Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman had not busied themselves trying to move Europe towards a pacific and prosperous unity there is little doubt that circumstance would have presented the inevitability of it to us anyway.
For "circumstance" read change. That happens irrespective of politicians. It is inexorable, continuous and confusingly swift.
Electronics have played a massive part. They have made the financial market global. It operates 24 hours a day. Money and companies shift round to maximise advantage. The establishment of blocs of adjacent markets with common interests is a consequence. Nations, obviously, will try to preserve their dinosaurs, for change is frequently painful and not accomplished without resistance. Global recession adds to the pain.
In Europe, many who thought that being European might even transform our weather, looked optimistically to Brussels to bring out the roller and make the pitch ideal for that single market. But the Treaty of Rome was not built in a day, nor will the single market be, especially now that growth cannot be taken for granted. Hopefully there will not be blood but there will certainly be toil and tears.
Britain is already more European than it might seem. We buy European goods, holiday in Europe, and, if it is true that we are what we eat, well ...
But peoples only come together gradually and, more so when recession stalks the land, with reservations about how much they should sacrifice. Unity can mean over-centralisation. Brussels can mean bureaucracy, which tends towards mindlessness and its own perpetuation. Bureaucracy unbounded can strangle small people of whose existence it is grandly unaware or mightily unconcerned.
In this and in the next three issues, we will be examining some of the big bumps on the European playing field. They arise from the ambivalent attitudes of EC members towards State subsidies. We start with electricity (see p36, The EC's Uneven Playing Field) and proceed to airlines, steel, and shipping. There are lots of smaller bumps, of course (see p26, Perspective, Peter Wilsher's column), but big ones must come first.
This is not a matter of whingeing but of wariness. As we have nowhere else to play, we should make the best of what we have for the benefit of all. That means discussion and argument to produce the equitable compromises for which Britain, particularly, believes it is renowned.
It also means not surrendering our view just because it is ours. That sort of diffident selfsacrifice would be completely out of character - and inimical to the spirit of democracy.