Leading Article: Putting Europe back to work

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The Independent Online
IT IS symptomatic of Britain's chequered history in Europe that meetings between UK ministers and their European Union counterparts are often caricatured in one of two ways. Either Britain is headed for a 'new clash' with Brussels over some perfidious, and usually French, socialist scheme. Or, with barely disguised condescension, London is poised to congratulate Europe for having at last grasped something its own civil servants have practised for years.

Today's EU summit in Brussels, which is to be dominated by Jacques Delors's White Paper on European competitiveness, has been no exception. Something would be fishy if 12 such different countries agreed on everything; but the differences between them are sufficiently subtle for the Brussels summit to be truly useful.

Belying his tabloid reputation as a socialist ideologue, Mr Delors has proved in the White Paper that he is a technocrat of rare intellectual flexibility. He has moderated his enthusiasm of two years back for a swift, across-the-board increase in worker protection, which so irritated John Major's ministers.

Labour market flexibility is thus a central theme of the paper. The document resists calls for Europe to compete on price with workers in Eastern Europe and South-east Asia; doing so would be hard, since a German auto worker is paid in nine hours what it takes a Czech worker a month to earn. Rather, it points to reducing indirect labour taxes - such as in Spain, where it may take two years and cost more than pounds 20,000 to fire a factory worker. Such laws, and the minimum wages common throughout the EU, often frustrate the aims they are intended to achieve.

The differences between Britain and its summit partners will be chiefly over the European Commission's ambitious plan to help finance a pounds 92bn investment programme by issuing its own Union Bonds. In principle, spending on 21st-century infrastructure is welcome; the United States has been talking for some time of pumping public dollars into information super-highways, while the Japanese government has helped its national telephone company to put hi-tech digital phones on railway platforms.

But there are important questions yet to settle. Does Mr Delors's proposed method of financing give member states sufficient control over spending? And can the Commission be relied on to disburse such colossal sums wisely, given its patchy record in keeping track of the money dished out to European farmers and other supplicants?

Mr Major will be putting particular pressure this weekend on countries that have been slow to adopt new ideas on labour markets. He will have some explaining of his own to do, notably on Britain's still backward standards of education and training. But if the summiteers can keep the theology in their briefcases, they can help put Europeans back to work in the next few years, and make the Union more prosperous in the coming decades.