The unclaimed victory of Mr Major

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Michael Portillo thinks that the European Union's new plans for social policy represent the same old interventionism. To the European Trades Union Confederation, by contrast, they look suspiciously like a retreat from giving workers the protection that they deserve. The Confederation of British Industry, however, is happy with them. Padraig Flynn, the commissioner for social policy, says they will help the competitiveness of European business.

There is precious little agreement on what is going on in European social policy, let alone on what should happen in the future. This confused picture is the result, above all, of the way that the issue has been politicised within the Conservative Party. It bears small relation to what was revealed yesterday in the Medium-Term Social Action Programme for 1995-97.

In truth, the paper represents a decisive change of heart, a victory - if you like - for Mr Major. The old idea of the European Commission held that thehistoric task of the EU was to create a highly regulated system of worker protection that made every issue the subject of legislation. That attitude is now gone. This is partly a product of changing personalities, and in particular the departure of Jacques Delors; but even Mr Delors, in his last two years, had modified his views. It is at least as much a result of changing thinking in Brussels and every national capital as the new realities of global competition havefiltered through to EU social policy plans. Europe knows that vastly extending the scope of regulation would destroy competitiveness. It has read the economic runes.

That does not mean that the Commission has little to do in the field of social policy. There is plenty of work ahead, starting by making it easier for people to move and work abroad. Freedom of movement, a vital part of the EU treaty, has attracted very little attention - while the freedom of movement of capital, goods and services has raced ahead. There is a clear need for some harmonisation of social legislation across borders, to remove glaring differences between national regimes.

The new, pared-down model sketched by Mr Flynn yesterday indicates that the British government's efforts to remould social policy in Europe have had some success - things have changed. The irony is that this victory should go unproclaimed by such a senior member of the government that achieved it. But the terms of the internal Conservative debate have now shifted so far that Mr Portillo is forced to condemn that which should give his party pleasure. That he should find himself in chorus with the trade unions of Europe in denouncing the new policy is ironic in the deepest and most satisfying sense.