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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

Rebranding Christmas

More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...