Lionel Jospin and Tony Blair are both new socialists... how can they st and so far apart?

Europe's Left: United we stand, but divided we remain
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The Independent Online
Female delegates in the auditorium groaned when he spoke of cherishing "the family". When trite words were spoken on the subject of crime fighting and the citizen, they yawned. But when Tony Blair spelled out his ideas for modernising Europe and job creation, people rose to their feet, applauding. What appealed most of all was his call for radical change and rejection of the ways of the old Socialist past.

Lionel Jospin, Europe's other brand-new Socialist leader, also raised applause when he spoke yesterday to the European Socialists' Congress in the Swedish city of Malmo.

And, unlike Mr Blair, Mr Jospin raised some laughs, admitting that nobody was as surprised as him to have seen the Socialists swept to victory in last Sunday's French elections. But it was Mr Blair who caught the mood of the moment yesterday, while Mr Jospin's vision of the future appeared to leave people cold.

There was puzzlement and even fear at some of the French Prime Minister's policy proposals which seem to hark back to the past. And Mr Blair himself seemed keen to keep a distance from Mr Jospin - failing to congratulate him in his speech, whereas the French Prime Minister showered Mr Blair with warm praise.

It was a perfect opportunity yesterday for Europeans to hear their two newest Socialist leaders set out their respective visions of the future and to test the differences.

The two men, of course, struck many similar themes. This was a joyous occasion for Europe's Socialists riding a wave of excitement and enjoying their new supremacy on the European political stage.

Both leaders determined to demonstrate they were part of the same "happy political family", spoke of social equality. Both warned that Europe had become remote from its people and both recognised the paramount need to answer the unemployment crisis which has led to 18 million unemployed in the European Union.

But it was Mr Blair who touched the mood of the moment with his forthright dismissal of old "statist" ways and his outright rebuttal of regulation or state control as the solution to Europe's problems.

Instead he spoke of a "third way" by which government should work to "empower" people to develop their own skills in order to stand up to the forces of change. Even on the question of the Social Chapter his caution and warnings found little resistance. Mr Blair told his audience that minimum standards of social provision were vital but not if they hindered job creation or led to red tape.

Blair's vision was welcomed in the corridors outside. "From the substance of what I have heard, I very much like Tony Blair's vision of change," said Karel Van Miert, Europe's Commissioner for the Single Market. "Blair says we must not look backwards. We must place an emphasis on education and skills, that is all good."

Dutch leaders embraced Mr Blair's philosophy which they believe they in the Netherlands are already implementing with widespread success. "On flexible job markets and minimum standards for social provision, we are already forging ahead," said one senior Dutch official. "Tony Blair's vision is in line with ours," he added.

Mr Blair's message went down well, too, with German Socialist delegates. "We prefer the pragmatic Blair approach," said Barbara Weiler, a member of the European Parliament for the German Socialists, the SPD. "We have already shifted our thinking towards the Blair approach in many respects in our party."

Mr Jospin, as predicted, placed greater emphasis on the need for governments to regulate and control the economy in order to direct the changes caused by globalisation. "The market has to be regulated. Its forces have to be channelled so the energy generated can help produce investment, to produce growth," he said.

Such comments, though not explicitly calling for a return to the interventionist ways of the old left, nevertheless produced fears that France would not be able to take a lead in Europe's reforms.

Mr Van Miert said: "I feel some turbulence when I listen to Mr Jospin." Ad Melkert, the Dutch Social Affairs Minister said: "I preferred listening to Mr Blair, whose message was to keep the status quo."

More worrying to those listening to Mr Jospin, perhaps, was the emphasis he seemed to place on the role of the nation-state. Europe, the French Prime Minister suggested, should have less role in the future in directing economic affairs, and he declared the state to be the "core of European democracy".

Mr Blair, meanwhile, showed a clear recognition of the need for European instruments in key areas of policy, particularly in the field of employment. One Belgian minister commented: "Mr Jospin's words have puzzled us. Does he want to renationalise policy in the economic field, is that what he means?"

Few at the congress wanted to play up the differences between the two men, many French delegates insisted the visions were "complementary". Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, spoke guardedly of differences in "nuance", but it was clear that not only amongst the northern Europeans but also amongst the new Labourites of Portugal, Italy and even Spain, Mr Blair's words struck more of a chord.

Delegates warned that Mr Blair still needed to prove that his changes could come to fruition in his own country before real faith could be placed in his leadership qualities in the rest of the European Union. But Mr Blair himself must have left the congress well aware that it was his speech which won a standing ovation and not that of Mr Jospin.

Asked whether Mr Blair could become the first British leader to take a truly central role on the European stage, many delegates replied: "In time, why not?"

German left (out)

Rudolf Scharping of Germany, leader of the Party of European Socialists, said socialism has as many faces as there are socialist parties in Europe. "But overall it's the same idea: defend the people's right, be close to the people.

"It was not such a long time ago that people were saying the whole idea of socialism was out-of-date," he told the opening session of the Socialist get-together.

But now, "we have become so strong in Europe that cannot allow ourselves the luxury of behaving like an opposition party."

Germany is one of only two countries in Europe where the left plays no role in government.