UK: THE SEMI-DETACHED RELATIONSHIP THAT BENEFITS NO ONE - EUROPEAN UNION. - 'If it's European, make the worst of it' could almost be a UK motto.

by Peter Wilsher.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

'If it's European, make the worst of it' could almost be a UK motto.

Lord Cockfield, in recently unbuttoned mood, delivered a scathing verdict on the general attitude of British politicians (and indeed, let us face it, the British at large) towards the so-called European Union. 'They recall little of its history, know nothing of its philosophy. Even more striking is their virtually complete absence of hard, factual knowledge.

Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of all is that they were, and remain, unaware of these deficiencies.' In the circumstances it is perhaps hardly surprising that we receive so little of the benefits of membership. Indeed, one striking area of ignorance is whether we belong to the club at all. I am frequently asked whether I think we should join, and it always comes as a shock to them to learn that we have been paying our not insubstantial subscriptions now for more than 20 years.

The point of these slightly bilious reflections, is to introduce a warning: that we are about to enjoy, or endure, another set of disappointments, surprises and sub-optimal returns arising from our semi-detached relationship with our cross-Channel neighbours. 'If it's European, make the worst of it' is in serious danger of becoming a national motto.

Take, for instance, the vexed question of mandatorily elected works councils - the subject of the first Euro-law to be enacted this summer under the furiously resisted Social Chapter of the hated (but naturally almost universally unread) Maastricht Treaty. Under the terms emerging, after something like 25 years of concentrated wrangling, it will apply to all concerns employing over 1,000 workers if these include groups of over 150 apiece in each of at least two different member countries. That definition embraces 1,500 of Europe's largest transnational companies, of which 450 are German, 250 American (with large Continental subsidiaries) and 222 French. Britain would have contributed 300 to the total, were it not for the laboriously negotiated and co-operation-disrupting Maastricht opt-outs, of which David Hunt, the then employment secretary said, 'I am very pleased that the UK will not be forced to accept union-dominated works councils, imposing unnecessary costs and bureaucracy'. But on closer inspection, it turns out to be a distinctly partial exemption. Under the rules as they stand, some 100 of those firms with particularly extensive operations will be required to comply, and others may well fall into the net if they decide to expand into additional markets (not to mention those that decide, for the sake of good industrial relations, that their best course is to follow suit anyway). So was it really worth all the rancour and sweat required to remain the only country out of step?

At least, though, the works-council agreement is a real opt-out. More typical is the much-trumpeted 'derogation' from Brussels's new child-labour regulations, which allow Britain's under-16-year-old paper boys and paper girls to carry on delivering, among other things, a daily four million copies of Rupert Murdoch's Europe-hating Sun. But that is only a very temporary let-off: by 1988, as with many other things where we have insisted on preserving a modicum of difference from our neighbours, we shall meekly drop back into line.

Sometimes, where there is a serious technical debate involved, there is perhaps a reasonable case for using whatever stalling tactics are available. But even then there has to be a nagging suspicion that we take intransigence a bit too far.

In the long-running and bitter argument, for instance, about standardising the two-pin European electric socket, the Department of Trade has just put in its own pre-emptive strike by requiring, as from 1 January next year, that the great bulk of all appliances, made in or imported by the UK, must be fitted with three-pin, 13-amp plugs. That will probably keep local manufacturers happy and stall the larger project for some years ahead. But one does not need to be a total single-market fanatic to wonder whether this is not a victory for parochial politics over the broader interests of common sense.

Over the next six months, it looks as if there are going to be plenty of opportunities for raising similar doubts. Germany, currently holding the Union presidency, intends to push through lots of social charter business. The agenda covers a variety of labour market and workers' rights measures - including the extension of staff employee protection to part-timers and best-practice treatment to people working outside their own country, and the tilting of the proof-burden in sex-discrimination cases more in favour of the complainant than the employer - to all of which Britain objects.

But one of these items in particular shows the inconsistency that too much protest can incur. This is the widening of parental leave rights, especially those involving the father. John Major's government claims to be second to none in its concern for preserving the family. Yet when it comes to a measure specifically tailored to that end, ideological arguments about the sanctity of the market somehow take over, and yet again leave the UK in a minority of one. It hardly adds up to being at the heart of Europe.

Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.

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