Leading article: The vital message beneath the Euro waffle

Share
Related Topics
It won't have any practical effect. It's not necessary. It's not even grammatical. So why would Prime Minister Blair sign the European Social Chapter? Well, we are all in favour of workers being treated decently, aren't we? And against ruthless capitalists in top hats undercutting each other by grinding down the workers? But when it comes to what is actually in the Social Chapter, we are alarmingly vague. Something to do with the harmonisation of milk, honey and apple pie production and the Promotion of Motherhood directive, isn't it? It might as well be.

We can reveal that The Independent has obtained a copy of the actual document. It is only two pages long, but crude attempts have been made to keep its contents secret by use of polysyllabic abstractions, cross- references and dodgy translations. This linguistic monument to the remoteness of the European Union from its peoples is, undoubtedly, one of the central issues of the coming election campaign - if only because no one can deny that it represents one of the few remaining differences between Tony Blair and John Major. One will sign it, by 1 January next year, and the other will not - ever.

So we set our team of code-crackers and economic analysts on the task of working out what it all means. The fruits of their labours take the form of the first of a series of election briefings, on page 7 today. And the conclusion is that the Social Chapter does matter - not so much for what it contains, but for what the parties' response to it says about their position on the vital questions of economic success and jobs creation.

The trouble with the document itself is that much of it is platitudinous waffle. The EU "shall support and complement the activities of the Member States in", for example, "the information and consultation of workers". That might not get past a self-respecting sub-editor, but there is otherwise little to complain of in its import. Companies tend to do better when employees feel they are part of the enterprise, and there is nothing wrong with common rules across Europe as long as they lead to more information and consultation rather than less.

The awkward bit for Mr Blair is the next clause, about supporting and complementing in the field of "working conditions". That, as the small- printy obsessives at Conservative HQ point out, could mean anything. And this "support" can come in the form of measures which could be imposed on Britain against the wishes of its government. Hence the Labour leader's slipperiness on the issue.

The paradox is that Mr Blair has been saved because Mr Major has won the argument. The reason we have nothing to fear from the Social Chapter is that Germany and France now agree that well-intentioned but excessive social protection for workers acts as a drag on their economies.

Last week's most chilling news was that German unemployment had hit a level last seen in the Thirties. There are many reasons for Germany's present economic troubles, and high social costs are not actually among them, but the sharp rise in unemployment has focused attention again on the problem of how to compete in world markets without shutting millions of people out of work. The shifting of German opinion leaves Sweden and Denmark as the only EU countries advocating a full-scale, cradle-to-grave welfare state in which employers as well as governments act as providers of social security.

In the rest of Europe, "flexibility" is the buzzword. The debate is about the degree to which companies should be freed from regulations and costs, how job-creating entrepreneurs can be stimulated and how to get people "off welfare into work". It is a debate which the Conservatives have led, even if their performance has been disappointing and some of their economic liberalism goes too far.

Much more important than anything in the Social Chapter, for instance, are laws for a maximum working week and a minimum wage. Both of these should be supported in principle, not just for this country but, as the single market becomes more integrated, eventually across Europe as a whole. So far, the single European market seems largely confined to toy retailing, where all packaging is nowadays splattered with a Babel of languages. As economies become more integrated, and workers become more used to moving around the EU, level playing fields become more necessary.

Workers should not be forced to work more than 48 hours a week, as laid down in EU law, which the Government has been forced, kicking and screaming, to accept. Nor should employers pay wages that are too low, knowing that taxpayers will subsidise them through family credit. This principle of fair competition used to be accepted by Tories, and should be again. It needs to be extended so that jobs are not threatened by similar neighbouring economies that do allow workers to be exploited. But it must not extend to protectionist measures designed to insulate European living standards from global competitive pressures.

It is important that we get the answers to these questions right, not just for the politics of the UK, but for Europe as a whole. Whoever forms the next British government needs to play a constructive part in steering the emerging single European economy between the two extremes of the market liberal daydream of the "Hong Kong of Europe", and the spectre of European protectionism.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: The Sussex teenager killed fighting in Syria

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Actor Zac Efron  

Keep your shirt on Zac – we'd all be better for it

Howard Jacobson
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit