Kok serves Blair his hot potatoes

With Amsterdam only weeks away, it is time for the two Labour PMs to harmonise strategy, writes Sarah Helm in The Hague
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The Independent Online
When Wim Kok greets Tony Blair in London today, the Dutchman's deeply chiselled features are sure to break into the broadest of beguiling smiles.

The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, which holds the European Union presidency, probably knows Mr Blair better than any other European leader, and has waited anxiously, but patiently, for the Labour leader to rise to power. As recently as February the two men met to discuss Europe, talking alone and drinking tea for two hours in a small room at the back of the Beurs, the old Amsterdam stock exchange.

Mr Blair is said to have developed respect and affection for Mr Kok, another Labour man, an enlightened integrationist and a prime architect of the Netherlands' "tiger economy."

Now, with just over five weeks to go before the Amsterdam summit, the bond between the two men will be put to a serious test. Mr Blair needs Mr Kok to guide him through the grinding detail of the European Union reform negotiations and to stop other member states taking advantage of his inexperience by running rings around him when the carve-up starts.

Mr Kok needs Mr Blair to make some key concessions so that the Amsterdam summit can go down as a European, and a Dutch, success. If anyone can hammer out a blueprint for a compromise it is probably Wim Kok, a former trade unionist and a master of the art of consensus-building.

Mr Kok epitomises everybody's idea of a sober, sensible Dutchman. "He is someone you would buy a second-hand car from. Not only that, he is someone who you know would repair the second-hand car before he sold it to you," says Elske Ter Veld, a former Dutch state secretary.

Mr Kok looks trustworthy. Tall and imposing, he give the impression that he is never in a hurry, someone who would know, instinctively, when to serve the "hot potatoes", as he teasingly calls the more explosive proposals in his briefcase.

Mr Kok, 58, is the son of a carpenter, who grow up in Bergambacht, a village near Rotterdam, where he learned the Calvinist virtues of sobriety and careful book-keeping.

On leaving school, he won a scholarship to the elite Nijenrode business school, where he was marked out as a leader, going on to work in the trade union movement, where he shone as a negotiator.

As a small country which must make the best of limited resources, the Netherlands long ago learned that survival meant making the best of a situation by striking deals with neighbours. Trade unions and employers see themselves as "social partners" and governments are always constructed out of coalitions. Mr Kok holds together a "purple" coalition of left, right and centre parties.

Like Mr Blair, Mr Kok knows how to challenge consensus. He was largely responsible for breathing life into a stultified Dutch economy in the 1980s. He challenged Dutch social welfare traditions and reformed the trade unions.

Agreements brokered by Mr Kok on wage moderation and welfare reform allowed a radical restructuring of the Dutch economy, which today marks up an unemployment figure of only 6.6 per cent, and produces more new jobs than any other European country except Ireland, while maintaining adherence to the European Social Chapter and solid minimum standards for all social welfare.

The Dutch Prime Minister, a deeply committed European, is in many ways a man of the old integrationist school, and he has no doubt that the future lies in deeper union. Among the "hot potatoes" he will produce today will no doubt be draft texts on greater qualified majority voting and power sharing in such areas as defence and justice, which Mr Blair may find hard to accept.

Mr Kok is also determined to see the single currency launched on time in January 1999 and will no doubt take the chance to urge Mr Blair to consider joining at the start. The Dutch Prime Minister's faith in the project stems primarily from a practical belief in the absolute need for Europe to become competitive in order to produce more jobs. People may have qualms about whether economic power should be Europe's prime ideal, he says. But, he adds swiftly: "There is nobody who would be against being able to earn a living a few decades from now."

Handling the British problem is only one of Mr Kok's concerns as he drives the EU presidency towards Amsterdam. He must also keep an eye on the Franco- German engine and ensure that the rights of smaller member states are not trampled on.

He knows European leaders must win back the trust of ordinary people who feel increasingly alienated by the type of back-room corporatist decision- making which constitutes European government.

The Amsterdam Treaty, orchestrated by our "man of the people", will contain little to ease these fears.

"There is more concern about where we are going now than there was there was six years ago. There is more friction between the process of European integration and the need to preserve national identity," Mr Kok says.

Perhaps, on the issue of winning public support, Mr Kok may find that the newly victorious Mr Blair has some bright ideas.