Make or Break Summit? – Britain’s persistent EU delusions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

“Copy me, I’m the best and you’re wrong” – that is the UK government’s attitude towards its guests at the Hampton Court Social Council, on 27 October 2005, says Kirsty Hughes in this commentary for EURACTIV. The 24 other EU countries are rather unlikely to follow such a charming invitation. New Labour’s economic policy still places the Blair government to the right of European Christian Democrats and in the camp of right-wing populists like Italy’s Berlusconi or Spain’s Aznar. 

It is perhaps quite appropriate that the UK has chosen to hold the EU’s summit at the end of October in the regal surroundings of Hampton Court  – famous for its large maze in which most get lost.  Last week, Gordon Brown attempted to raise the pre-summit temperature by announcing that it was a ‘make or break summit’ – either the Union now faces up to the UK-style economic reforms and policies it needs or, he threatened, it will fall behind for ever in the global economic race.

As a piece of diplomacy, this fails all tests. ‘Copy me, I’m the best and you’re wrong’ is never too welcome in EU circles and is more likely to irritate than cajole the other member states. But it also displays many of the perennial errors of British politicians in the face of the EU. Blairite and Brownite politicians and commentators now confidently claim that the UK has won the European economic argument on free markets and tough love labour policies. And they assert, with eastwards enlargement last year, the UK is the leader of a big majority in favour of anglo-saxon Europe – the French have lost!  

With more breathtaking insouciance, the Brits claim that the French and Dutch rejection of the EU’s constitution earlier this year proves they want more free markets and globalisation and less politics. The fact that both nations were expressing doubt at the democratic credentials of their leaders whether at home or in Brussels, and that the French wanted more not less social Europe, is simply ignored.

So at the ‘make or break’ summit, the French, the Germans, the Belgians, and all others still stuck in old social Europe are meant to raise their hands and say we give in Gordon, you’re right – thus proving the UK to be the leader in Europe, and impressing the British public who will in response finally stop being the most anti-European of all 25 member states.  

It’s a good bedtime fairy tale. But back in the real world, the other member states will not give in. Britain is not the economic model towards which all are or want to converge. And the British public will stay deeply sceptical of the political project that they see Europe to be. 

The problem for Blair and Brown is that the UK has for years been at the free market end of the EU spectrum on economic and social policies.  Although Europe’s current swing to the right makes the UK less of an outsider, New Labour’s economic policies place it substantially to the right of most European Christian Democratic parties.  Hence the fact that for years Blair’s strongest allies in the EU were two right wing populists:  Italy’s Berlusconi, and Spain’s former Prime Minister Aznar.  

Nor did EU enlargement to eastern Europe  in 2004 change economic views so much.  Most of the new member states don’t have the budget to establish generous welfare systems but, if it were possible, most would like to. Perhaps little Estonia, with its ultra-free market policies, most resembles the UK approach – not exactly a heavyweight new ally.

Despite this lack of consensus, in early July,  Blair announced that one key focus of his EU presidency would be modernising the European social model.  Yet new Labour has consistently acted to oppose not reform social Europe. When Blair came to power in 1997, he did reluctantly keep an ‘old Labour’ pledge to sign up to the EU’s social chapter and end the UK’s opt-out.   His government then spent the next 8 years doing its utmost to block any new social legislation from ever gracing the EU’s statute books. 

This included opposing with varying degrees of success laws on informing and consulting workers, regulating temporary work and controlling working hours. During the first Blair government, the relatively weak legal proposal to require employers to inform and consult workers about any major strategic corporate changes was seen as an important line in the sand.  A plethora of British ministers and diplomats beat a regular path to the door of the European Commission to cajole, plead and argue that the new law would destroy all things British: the excessive attention and paranoia of the Brits soon became a joke.  Nor did the diplomatic over-kill work: at the end of 2000, the Germans and Danes who had been blocking the new law with the UK, changed their positions and the law went through. 

There is anyway no simple choice between the British or the continental social model. There is a myriad of social models on the continent, pretty much one per country, and while France and Germany have higher unemployment than the UK (and also higher productivity, higher quality health care, higher quality railways, the list goes on) many other states with much more generous and interventionist social models than the UK also have relatively low unemployment such as Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden.

But the final, most fundamental problem with the Blair-Brown ‘make or break’ pitch is that much of what they are complaining about – high unemployment benefits, over-protected, inflexible labour markets, too many rights for workers – does not fall within the EU’s legal competence.  Each member state is free to determine almost all elements of its welfare state.  Nor is there any political will in any country, including the UK, to give that crucial and sensitive competence to Brussels.

The Union does have a grand-sounding European employment strategy – but this is more a work-creation scheme for European and national bureaucrats, based as it is on a lovingly detailed best-practice comparison of labour policies in different member states, but with absolutely no powers to change those policies at all.

But Blair and Brown, one assumes, do know that many of the economic and social reforms they are getting so worked up about in the run-up to the summit are nothing to do with the EU. So what is it all about? Perhaps it is a typical British confusion aimed, on the one hand to distract the dastardly continentals from getting on with any real legislation or more political integration, while on the other desperately attempting to kid the British public that Europe is going our way. But it isn’t and it won’t – and the British public have seen through this before. So, Gordon, good luck in the Hampton Court maze.

Kirsty Hughes is a writer on international affairs. From 1999 to 2001 she was deputy chief of staff to the then European Commissioner for Social Affairs in Brussels.


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