Europe, a suitable place for a woman

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EUROPE may be the San Andreas fault of the Conservative Party, but elsewhere all the women I know are pro- Europeans, fans of the civilising way in which the EU has so far used its power.

Europe has earned this respect partly by its pursuit of equal treatment for women and the largely benevolent role its institutions have played in protecting working people. I, for one, long to be more European, and the fact that John Major refuses, for example, to sign Britain up for the full Social Chapter provisions makes me seethe.

Modern women view one of Europe's key objectives, the improvement in the living and working conditions of its citizens, as a practical force for good. Time and again its institutions have been used as checks on the way our own high-handed government has tried to erode basic safeguards and legal protections.

For example, while the UK Government has been trying to dismantle employment rights for part-time workers, Europe has taken an opposite view. It has championed their inclusion in redundancy and maternity rights, precisely because their situation is a key manifestation of new flexible working arrangements. Its stance is that if we are coming to the end of the jobs-for-life era, there must be compensations to assist the shift and prevent the development of an underclass.

These protections are especially important for women, who make up 87 per cent of the part-time work force. But the larger point is that women are bound, through pregnancy, child-rearing and persistent if low-level discrimination, to be vulnerable at key stages in their lives. Further, they have been only marginally protected by national trade unions, which are a weakened force anyway.

This protection of the weak is precisely what I expect from a modern, civilised state, built upon centuries of humanitarian debate. It is part of the deal that governments should enter into in return for the privilege of taxing us highly. It is as important a duty as its traditional role of defending the realm.

Faced with an organisation that has been able to make governments implement equal pay for equal work by creating the principle of 'work of equal value', (so helping lowly paid women such as cooks in shipyards win parity with male workers), I'm prepared to live with set-aside payments to asset- rich farmers and silly moves to reduce the quality of life for foodies by outlawing unpasteurised cheese.

One of the most practical examples, currently working its way through our system, is the payment of damages to former servicewomen dismissed because of pregnancy. The armed forces could get away with it for years because they were exempt from national sex discrimination laws: however, they were not exempt from European directives. The EU is also forcing Britain to improve its maternity law provisions. It should next turn its attention to the shambles that currently passes for pre-school child care and nursery education.

I'm not surprised that gutsy women such as Edwina Currie and Glenys Kinnock are following the early example set by Barbara Castle and seeking election as MEPs. This is surely where the future lies. You only have to observe the proceedings of the British Parliament and its clubby selection processes (let alone ponder the sexual scandals that male MPs seem to generate) to know that our system neither attracts nor promotes the brightest and best brains. I wonder if MPs realise just how shabby our democratic system appears to those outside it.

I am encouraging my children to consider themselves Europeans, to learn as many languages as they can, and to look towards the Continent for their future employment.

My heart sank when I saw the new history curriculum for schools, which was released this week: of course British children should learn dates and key developments in our island history, but they should also be encouraged to learn more about the birth of other European nation states as well.

There are large numbers of people out here who want Britain to be more European, to forge a future in an integrated, civilised union. You could say that the Channel tunnel is a symbol of release, a way of linking this strange island of ours with something bigger and better - while the infuriating cost of changing money every time one ventures on a cross-Channel ferry and the millions made by Euro-currency dealers are the kind of irritants that only serve to spur us on.