Eurosceptic? Moi?

Hogarth's caricatures of corrupt and weak Continentals are alive today, with a little help from new

In August 1748, a plump, middle-aged Englishman went to France and didn't like what he saw. Like many an Englishman since, he found fault with everything and started abusing the locals in the street. Finally the inevitable happened: he was arrested while sketching the town gate in Calais, dumped on a ship and ordered to clear off home.

William Hogarth had his revenge though, with arguably the most accomplished and famous xenophobic rant in British art. He painted The Gate of Calais when he got back to London, a picture of weak and corrupt, priest-ridden, unshaven and almost certainly smelly Frenchmen labouring under a huge hunk of good English beef.

As a correspondent in Brussels 250 years later, I sometimes found it hard to think that we had moved on. We continue to regard the Continentals in a way that would make Jorg Haider blush. He conforms to great European stereotype number two, the nasty Nazi.

The European Union is almost an entirely domestic political story, filtered ruthlessly and increasingly through a distorting prism, an alien construct in which we can play no positive part. Five years ago, the idea of leaving was a weird notion of the wilder, swivel-eyed fringes of the right. Today, it is a subtext to the whole debate, since it is the logical consequence of the Conservative Party's European policy and the mounting public opposition to the single currency. Tory MPs and MEPs scarcely bother to hide their views in private, whatever they may be required to say in public. With no such constraints, the sceptic press follows, chortling, shouting at the foreigners much as Hogarth did.

Don't necessarily blame the Brussels correspondents - we are just foot-soldiers in the great campaign, viewed suspiciously for having gone native by the commentators even on our own papers back home. They rarely stir themselves to visit the infamous heart of Europe, or allow anything to tamper with their prejudice.

It is all quite frivolous, as if disengagement could be achieved simply, at no cost. In the Sunday Telegraph of 27 February, Daniel Hannan, the twentysomething Tory Eurosceptic MEP, who used to be Michael Howard's little helper in Whitehall, was claiming that only 3,000 jobs might be lost if we pull out - and they would all be functionaries in Brussels. Whatever you think of claims of millions of job losses from the other side, Hannan was just being fatuous.

And cynical too: the sceptics know that renegotiating the treaty on Britain's behalf is just not on, because the other 14 members would not accept it. Similarly, the debate over sovereignty is largely bogus. Every international treaty involves a loss of independence. "Surrendering" our economy to unelected foreign bankers presupposes that we have not done that already - how much did George Soros make as he picked off our vulnerable economy on Black Wednesday? Anyway, whoever elected the Bank of England?

The opportunity to have a balanced debate, as opposed to frenzied, paranoid, one-sided ranting, is being lost by default. The government has too often colluded in this, though Tony Blair's speech in Ghent recently made a welcome change - and it was not the sort of speech he has ever chosen to deliver on home ground. Even then, his message of engagement in Europe was somewhat obscured by the discovery of the Times and Telegraph in their preview stories that the most interesting thing about the speech was the line that Margaret Thatcher had (sometimes) been right about the EU. Who spun them that line?

Too often, the government's anxiety not to alienate the sceptic press, which rightly sees Europe as the one area where this otherwise all-powerful government is uniquely vulnerable, is deeply depressing. Its willingness to strike populist attitudes to appease the sceptics contrasts with its determination to demonstrate the sort of leadership that Blair was talking about.

For us, the archetypal EU story is one of faceless and corrupt bureaucrats. You would never guess that the European Commission employs fewer bureaucrats than the City of Birmingham - and that a third of them are translators. These foreigners also display a pervasive incompetence - for example, in "the European Commission was thrown into turmoil last night", as the Daily Telegraph succinctly if inaccurately began a report into Haider's success in Austrian politics recently. The picture being painted is entirely similar to Hogarth's: Europeans are prone to panic, untrustworthy and unreliable - just like they were in two world wars.

They draw an entirely different conclusion from those wars. We think we won. They know they lost. We bandy the war about too lightly in the context of Europe, tending insouciantly to forget that other countries were shattered by it, morally, politically, psychologically and economically. I once raised before an audience of earnest young German lawyers the sceptics' charmless argument that the EU is a plot concocted by Germans to gain by diplomatic means what they had twice failed to achieve by war. There was a stunned silence and then a perceptible gasp of horror and incompre- hension. The legacy of the war is another reason why the European Union is viewed entirely differently on the other side of the Channel.

For us, everything to come out of the EU is bad, even if in other contexts it might be seen as good. The government panders to this. Gordon Brown resists the principle of tax harmonisation over the withholding tax, effectively backing instead those unlikely heroes of the proletariat, the tax avoiders and the well-paid young men who advise them how to hide their money offshore. He claims, purely on the assertion of the City, that thousands of jobs will be lost if EU member-states agree to the principle of swapping information about tax avoidance.

Harmonisation is always bad because its effect on taxes in Britain will always be upwards (won't it?), even in areas where many European states have lower rates than we do: on petrol, on tobacco, on drink. You might think that the government would have learnt its lesson from the demise of duty free last year. Remember how many jobs Brown and Blair feared would be lost, based on what the ferry operators and airport companies told them? Have you noticed any empty departure terminal shopping malls recently?

Our government's way of demonstrating that it is at the heart of Europe is frequently to hector. Although he says that he recognises the dangers of doing this, Blair goes to Davos and tells the Europeans that they ought to follow the British way. We routinely mix assertion with ineffable superiority. Can you imagine what our reaction would be if Lionel Jospin came to Britain and told us how much better France is?

Suppose there had been an outbreak of mad snail disease, that we had banned the little gastropods and then those foreign bureaucrats had ordered us to resume imports when our own scientific experts had argued that they were still unsafe to eat. You may not like the French tactics over beef, but you can imagine what the Sun would have made of a diktat from Brussels overruling Britain on an import that it did not want to take. Even sceptics these days acknowledge that British beef cannot be forced down the throats of foreigners. At least the EU has reopened most of the European market to our exports, unlike the Americans (despite the "special relationship") or our old colonial cousins in Australia.

It is convenient for both main parties to blame the European Parliament for much that is wrong in Europe. As we all know, it is a gravy-train of politicians on the take - though in fact the costs per MEP, except for travel, are broadly comparable with those of an MP at Westminster. Despite William Hague's constant outrage, it was a Tory MEP who claimed for the loss of a day's pheasant shooting in the last parliament, because he had to carry out the tiresome task of taking part in a delegation supervising an election in the Ukraine. It was a former Tory MEP who notoriously used to claim first-class return fares from his constituency every time he crossed the road from his Brussels flat to attend a meeting. It was Tim Yeo, the party's agriculture spokesman, who last year discreetly mused in Brussels about how much he would like to become a commissioner. Think about it next time you hear him attacking the EU over beef.

You could even argue that the real problem with Europe is not too little democracy, but too much. Few things ever really get decided. Decisions are batted to and fro between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Trying to accommodate 15 different national sensibilities, policies get compromised, delayed and watered down.

That is one reason why those awful fates constantly predicted for us by the sceptics, never quite come to pass.

Stephen Bates was European affairs editor of the "Guardian" from 1995 to 1999