Let’s brainstorm Europe’s common social ills

Sometimes, the best solutions to common political problems lie outside politics. By banging our heads together we can reach better results. Let's do it more often

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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 looks and sounds very British. And until recently, any trip across the Channel would probably have confirmed that. On the other side, you would invariably have found a very different set of news and social preoccupations, even as countries declared themselves all-European. Recent experience, though, suggests that is no longer so. Arriving at a friend’s home in Germany, I picked up the paper and was astonished by the familiarity of the main stories.

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 at all. Chancellor Angela Merkel soon rejected the proposal because of the extra cost that other taxpayers and contributors would have to bear.

Then there were the cabin attendants of Germany’s boring, but reliable, Lufthansa, going on strike. They were not just threatening, but actually striking – and over what? Pay and privileges, yes, but their central complaint was the use of cheaper agency workers to fill shifts. At the same time, embarrassing – and very un-German – delays afflicting Berlin’s new “hub” airport were prompting questions not just about unaccustomed incompetence, but about Germany’s supposed lag behind other countries in airport capacity.

Elsewhere 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. There was a report of trains cancelled because vandals had once again stolen lead cable, and another about whether “fracking” to release shale gas – a technique banned in France, fast-tracked in Poland, and still being agonised over in Britain – should be allowed. Another article considered the unsustainable cost, for the state, of higher education.

I also watched a late-night television programme about the evils of the banks and their marketing of investment “products” that had plunged three of the – once well-to-do – guests into near-bankruptcy. On the health front, there was indignation about the number and cost of hospital mistakes. It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? 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 very 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 when lead is on virtually open access and its price so temptingly high; 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, when the euro members are at sixes and sevens, and when each country tends to see itself as being locked in potentially lethal economic competition with every other. Yet the argument for pooling resources – brain power, even more than money – on searching for solutions to these common problems 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 perhaps the chief obstacle to identifying remedies lies in the assumption that they must, inevitably, entail political choices.   

At a recent conference I attended, we practically laughed off the platform a Bulgarian elder statesman who asked why it was that pilots were trained on simulators, while heads of government required no such preparation for still more complex tasks. I think we – rank and file participants – were right to reject his contention that answers were to be found in computer models. We have been that way in banking, and look where it got us. We were also right to question where that left electoral democracy.

But the notion that, if we examine the many national models before us 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.