Leading Article: A new pragmatism in Europe

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TODAY's meeting of employment ministers in Luxembourg might seem to go to the heart of Britain's hostility to any interference by the EC in British working practices. Despite Britain's opt-out from the Social Chapter, Brussels seems to be seeking to impose numerous restrictions on working hours. In reality, the Social Chapter is not involved, and the outcome of the meeting is unlikely to have much impact on working practices in this country. Yet there are significant issues at stake.

The original aim of the Commission's draft directive was to limit the working week in member states to a maximum of 48 hours, with exceptions for certain sectors. If as many as 40 per cent of British workers now put in more than the normal 40-hour week, as a new survey shows, it is because they wish to increase their earnings through overtime or part- time work. Why should they be deprived of their right to do so? In the event, Britain is expected to be granted a derogation enabling it to phase in the 48-hour limit over 10 years, thus shifting the emphasis to minimum rest periods.

David Hunt, the new, pro-European Employment Secretary, intends to challenge the legal validity of the directive, on the grounds that it has everything to do with conditions of work and little to do with health and safety, the rubric under which it has been introduced. That line is unlikely to convince his EC colleagues: long working hours can manifestly be dangerous. He is on sounder ground in arguing, as he did yesterday, that the EC should spend less time seeking to regulate working conditions and more time trying to reduce unemployment and improve Europe's competitiveness in the world market. Regulations adding to the costs of employment are bound to increase the EC's 17.4 million jobless total.

So-called non-wage costs are already alarmingly high. The Germans are beginning to see the danger of pricing themselves out of the market. Leaving aside the lower wage economies of Asia and Eastern Europe, it is 30 per cent cheaper to build a BMW in the United States than in Bavaria. To shield itself from the effects of its increasing uncompetitiveness in the manufacturing sphere, the EC would have to seal off its markets.

Mr Hunt's plan to abstain in today's vote suggests an advance in tactical sophistication. It has often seemed to be standard British practice to emphasise beforehand the Government's hostility to the proposed legislation, thus generating considerable ill-will, only to yield to pressure in the EC meeting. The resulting legislation is then implemented with unique rigour.

On the Continent they do things differently. The commendably communautaire nature of the proposals is emphasised. These are accepted with judicious modifications, for which each country claims credit. The laws are implemented in the light of national customs, often meaning that they are ignored. If the omission gives the offending country an unfair advantage, it is likely to be taken to the European Court. If not, gratuitous interference has been avoided. British ministers should consider adopting this pragmatic version of subsidiarity.