Britain has been to war with many countries in its glorious military history, and the reasons for some of these conflicts were pretty flimsy. In 1738, for example, Captain Robert Jenkins presented himself before my predecessors in Parliament together with his ear; or, to be more accurate, separate from his ear which, he claimed, had been cut off by the Spanish when they boarded his ship seven years earlier. War was duly declared against Spain in 1739.
One country we have never declared hostilities against is Belgium. But I felt mildly incensed by that otherwise friendly and hospitable country when I went to Brussels last week with my wife.
We were in search of sculptures her father did when he lived in that great city. Pictures were needed of his work to illustrate a talk on his life to be given by Aurelia in the House of Commons next month.
We tracked down his Churchill in the Avenue Winston Churchill; and his Montgomery above Montgomery Metro station. The relevant images were captured on our digital camera.
To complete our mission, we needed to find his Paul Henri Spaak, a former Prime Minister of Belgium and the first President of the European Parliament. We knew his bust was in the lobby of that building, which we found in the shadow of the European Commission.
The building was deserted as our MEP’s had migrated to Strasbourg. (Most Parliaments make do with one building but, for some reason, the European Parliament requires two.)
To understand my disappointment at the diplomatic incident which then occurred, the reader needs some background information.
The Mother of Parliaments at Westminster welcomes within its portals Members of such upstart democratic institutions as the European Parliament. Not only can they come and go freely, but they are allowed into the very shrine of the building; the Members Dining Room. They can enjoy wine from our cellars (as long as they pay for it) and contribute to informed political debates as we take refreshment.
I assumed that, when I presented myself to the European Parliament, this hospitality would be reciprocated. I entered a door marked “ Centre d’accreditation” and, in my best French, explained my mission to a lady the other side of the security screen. She was unmoved. “Admission n’est pas possible.”
I asked if I might appeal to a higher authority. I was directed towards a man reading a newspaper behind a desk. I produced my House of Commons pass and explained our ambition to take home a digital image of one of his country’s finest citizens. No; or, to be exact, Non. Whatever was going to happen to me, I was not going to be accredited.
At that point I saw, some 20 feet away, the very bust I wanted to photograph. I adjusted my negotiation position and outlined a resolution of the impasse. No further trespass need take place of Belgian soil. I just wished to take a photograph from where I was of the founder of European democracy, who was gazing with bemusement at this exchange. The bureaucrat was unmoved. We reached deadlock. Despondent, I left the building. Then, from a public place outside, I aimed my camera at the Spaak behind the window.
Frantic gestures from the Centre of Accreditation indicated the illegality of even this action. I ignored them and a picture was taken. Fearing arrest and the removal of, if not my ear, then my camera, I gave it to my wife and we headed off in separate directions. If anyone was to be apprehended, it would be me and the images would be secure.
We made it safely back to England; and the talk will take place. I warn those who are coming that the picture of Spaak does him less than justice.