Commentary: Maastricht critics wide of the mark

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The Independent Online
Conduct a large thought experiment and imagine that Britain rejoins the European mainstream, even implementing the Maastricht treaty's Social Chapter. This may not look likely, since Douglas Hurd implied yesterday that the Government would not accept Maastricht at all if an unholy alliance of anti-Maastricht Tories, pro- Maastricht Tories like Edward Heath, Labour and the Liberal Democrats votes to put the Social Chapter back in. But it is not impossible. Politicians - perhaps especially those in this government - thrive on a diet of their own words.

Much of the British opposition to the Social Chapter has been on the sound liberal principle that the state should keep its nose out of agreements freely entered into by the parties concerned, unless there is a clear and adverse impact on others. There is a fear that the chapter could become a mandate for meddlesome legislation, much of which could be passed by a qualified majority over Britain's head.

Britain's non-wage employment costs (such as employers' National Insurance) represent 41 per cent of wage costs, and we are one of only three countries in the entire Community where such ancillary costs are below 60 per cent.

Nevertheless, the specific provisions of the Maastricht Social Chapter are modest and some of the criticism has been wide of the mark. The EC-wide 48-hour week could certainly have more impact on Britain than other members, which already have their own legislation on hours, but it is based not on the Social Chapter but on the existing Treaty of Rome. There is also a persuasive argument made by the personnel directors of many leading UK multinationals that the Community is likely to inflict a good deal less damage on non-wage labour costs if Britain is inside the council arguing against folly.