EU urges Britain to rejoin Social Chapter

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The Independent Online
JACQUES DELORS is to address the Trades Union Congress this year, a move that is likely to put fresh pressure on the Government over its isolation in Europe.

The President of the EU Commission is likely to call for Britain to participate again in the EU's social policy, amidst renewed clashes between Labour and the Conservatives over the Maastricht opt-out. Labour's Tony Blair believes that the issue can help win his party votes in the next election.

It was Mr Delors' speech to the TUC in Bournemouth in 1988 that helped win over the British left to Europe, earned him the sobriquet 'Frere Jacques' in Britain and sparked the enmity between him and Baroness Thatcher. Mr Delors will seek to strike the same note this time, referring to Britain's history of social reform.

The French Socialist is interested in the British experience of social policy, and in an interview earlier this year with the Independent referred to it several times. He also sees it as a vital part of his job to try to convince the British of their place in Europe. The British withdrawal on social policy was one of the biggest defeats for Mr Delors at Maastricht. He leaves the Commission this year to return to French politics.

Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Employment and the leading right-winger in the Cabinet, yesterday warned Britain's European partners that the Government would not reverse its decision. But as he did so, Mr Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, pledged that the next Labour government would join the Social Chapter.

The issue is being used by Mr Major as a dividing line between the Tories and Mr Blair's Labour leadership. The Government is determined to exploit it in the run- up to the next election. But Labour believe the Tories, after 15 years of rule, are miscalculating the sympathies of the voters, with many now supporting safeguards for those at work.

'The Social Chapter is about decent minimum standards of fair treatment at work,' Mr Blair said. 'Since every other conservative party in Europe accepts that, we should be wanting that for our own country.' Mr Prescott, the Labour spokesman on employment, said his party had won a 'decisive victory' in the European elections with a platform of support for the Social Chapter. 'We should now join it, and we shall,' Mr Prescott said.

However Mr Portillo said: 'The opt-out is here to stay.' Britain was determined to ensure it did not impose costs on British employers and destroy jobs. 'We don't think that the long fingers of Brussels ought to extend into people's daily lives. We are not going to go back into the Social Chapter. We shall remain outside it,' said Mr Portillo.

Padraig Flynn, the EU Commissioner for Social Policy, said yesterday that Britain was undermining the single market by its obstinacy. 'If you want to have the benefits of the single market, I believe it's only right and proper that all of the 12 member states should accept the minimum standards on all aspects,' he said.