One of my recent pleasures during the working day has been the sight and sound of the Daily Mail, and, more recently, the Conservative leadership candidates, urging that we should all become more European.

They rarely put it that bluntly, most of them being deeply Euro-sceptic. But when they say that petrol, drink or cigarette prices must be lower, that is what they mean: European tax harmonisation for practical reasons (like helping truckers compete), although it is precisely the policy they deplore in theory.

It is the same with healthcare. When Michael Portillo said we should learn from the French and Germans we all chuckled, but it is now routine to use EU mixed health systems to batter minister Milburn's reform package. The Daily Mail's attacks on the NHS take much the same line.

A shameless lack of irony, but there we are. I mention it because the weekend papers cited another European intrusion which has implications for us all: the European Court of Justice ruling in favour of two Dutch patients who were refused state funding for treatment abroad that they could not get at home.

In upholding patients' rights to go abroad for treatment rather than face long waits at home, the court stressed that governments can refuse to pay, but only if they can provide 'the same or equally effective treatment without undue delay'.

Wow! No wonder the Sunday Times put it on the front page and an academic expert in EU law confirmed that it will mean 'cataract operations in Calais' for those who need them.No wonder, too, that the Department of Health issued a calming statement saying it was 'studying' the ruling to see if there are implications for the NHS.You betcha!

Optimistically, the DoH says that the current rule - prior authorisation for nonemergency treatment abroad using form E112 - is likely to remain in place. Last year only 1,100 such authorisations were granted by doctors in Britain. That number will now rise sharply, predicts the Sunday Times.

Frank Field, the iconoclastic Labour ex-minister, agrees, saying he has been urging governments to allow this option to people in pain - not sick, just in great pain. Under-used European hospitals would love to help Mr Milburn by accepting patients on the Eurostar train at weekends 'when our hospitals seem to shut down for serious work', he says.

That is the second time in a fortnight that I've heard the weekend shutdown jibe. But Field's point is a strong one.

Enoch Powell was a good health minister in his day. He used to say that health and social care - unlike manufacturing - would always have to be done at home. He did not realise that the single market would create options like this, just as it helps pensioners to retire to sunny Spain. EU law is gently flooding the rivers and creeks of England, just as outspoken lawmanLord Denning had predicted.

Personally I think it a far better use of the EU's time to do our hip operations quickly than pursue the illusion of the single currency.

But both will happen. In Parliament last week, ministers introduced a bill to allow men as well as women to get their bus pass at 60 (I am starting to take an interest) without admitting they are acting under similar Euro-pressures.

Coincidentally too, last week Norman Lamb, the new Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk (one of his party's gains on 7 June), was busy complaining about the backlog of orthopaedic operations in his area, dating from cancellations during the winter emergency crisis of 1996-97.

Cancellations, delay - all the usual stuff despite the area having (ministers admit) good local management, excellent surgeons and (the MP might have added) enjoying a bit of an economic boom. Not to mention the imminent opening - ahead of schedule - of a new£229m PFI-built hospital on a greenfield site at Colney just outside Norwich.

But before Mr Lamb's patients head for the channel tunnel, let's end on a positive note.

Though no elective surgery will take place for three weeks as the old Norfolk and Norwich hands over the baton, both hospitals are set to be open for an eightmonth overlap to help clear the backlog.

Extra money, theatres and staff are promised. It can be done.