Mary Dejevsky: Let's brainstorm Europe's ills

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The Independent Online

Poor children, so said the Ofsted chief inspector yesterday, are not benefiting from new government subsidies because schools are using the money to bridge other funding gaps. But if the so-called pupil premium cannot be made to work, how can the link between poverty and educational disadvantage be broken? A new pensions system is coming in that will make contributions automatic for most employees in the hope of safeguarding the next generation's retirement. Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith is still worrying about how to make work pay without forcing big families into starvation, and Boris and Dave are locked in a dispute about London airports, even as they agree that more provision is needed to keep Britain competitive internationally. And, of course, the agonising about NHS reform goes on.

It all sounds very British. And until recently, any trip across the Channel may have confirmed that. Recent experience, though, suggests that is no longer so. At a friend's home in Germany, I was astonished by the familiarity of the main stories in the paper.

The labour and social affairs minister was proposing a supplement to the future pensions of the low-paid, arguing that, in retirement, they risked falling into poverty and qualifying for state benefits – so negating any incentive to contribute to their pensions. There was an article about falling school standards and what to do about those who struggled with secondary education – in a world which demanded high levels of literacy and numeracy. On the health front, there was indignation about the number and cost of hospital mistakes. It sounds familiar. The only subject that was so far from British reality as to suggest another universe concerned the surplus built up in Germany's (non-profit) health insurance funds and the companies' refusal to reduce premiums.

Nor is Germany unique in its affinity to Britain, as evinced in its politics and news media. Across Europe, at least its western half, governments are grappling with similar problems: how to counter social disadvantage in education; how to ensure that state benefits do not discourage working – or saving for a pension; how to balance the interests of employers and staff, when cheaper labour is for hire; how to fund higher education; how to keep the trains running; how to gauge, and meet, the demand for air travel.

The paradox is that this convergence of domestic social and political concerns is happening at a time when Europeans seem to be losing their faith in Europe as a common cause. Yet the argument for pooling resources on searching for solutions should be compelling.

The standard objection is that solutions, if any are to be found, will be various, determined by the different cultures and political complexions of the individual countries.

But the notion that, if we examine the many national models and put our heads together, we might devise an optimum way to run a health service, or a decent school system, or a welfare state capable of aligning work and benefits, should not, I think, be dismissed so readily. There are times, perhaps, when the best answers might lie outside politics.

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