Europe's crisis: it's not just the politics, it's the leadership

Jun 24 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's call yesterday for "a reality check" by European leaders may have been largely addressing the political crisis engulfing the EU states, but it could just as easily be applied to Europe's captains of industry.

Blair told MEPs that, in the wake of the "no" votes on the European constitution, now was the time for "a profound debate" on the union's direction and that the EU was facing a crisis of political leadership.

"The people are blowing the trumpets round the city walls. Are we listening? Have we the political will to go out and meet them so that they regard our leadership as part of the solution not the problem?" he said.

His call was echoed by Britain's European Commission Peter Mandelson, who suggested that economic reform had to be accompanied by social reform to help people cope with the pace of change within Europe.

It is here that the political message starts to overlap with the message to managers and bosses. This is because there is a growing sense that Britain, with its economic liberalism and unique social and management structures, has an opportunity to lead Europe in a new direction.

Mandelson warned that the nations of the European Union could not be expected to accept British market liberalisation unless they could see that it would not simply create a society of "winners and losers".

But, he added, Europe needed to develop a similar mix of social and economic policies to those in the UK.

At the same time, Blair was stressing that the idea that Britain, with its flexible labour market and low employment costs, was a Dickensian sweatshop with no protection or rights for workers was a "caricature".

Their calls appear to be falling on fertile territory. Many on the outside and even those within the great European "project" are questioning whether what has been created serves Europe's workers as well as it might.

Just today [Friday] the British Chambers of Commerce called for the UK's presidency of the union, which starts on 1 July, to focus on reducing the regulatory burden on business of EU regulations.

On Wednesday, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggested that, far from condemning employees to a life of low wages and long hours, the UK's "Anglo-Saxon" economic model had actually created more jobs and delivered better working conditions that the models used by its ailing European counterparts.

And last week a study by the European Commission admitted that Europe is missing out on the creation of 1.5 million new jobs because micro-businesses are being held back by excessive employment regulation and red tape.

Finally, research earlier this month by the Federation of European Employers questioned the value of the EU's much vaunted social benefits programmes by revealing that the average EU employee worked well in excess of their basic contractual hours, mainly to cover for colleagues taking time off.

The Guardian's Jon Henley may have hit the nail on the head last month when he lambasted the knee-jerk protectionism and fear of change that pervades so much of the European debate.

He argued that, when it came to rejecting the EU constitution, half the French population had been living on a separate planet Ė Planet France.

This was a planet where the liberal Anglo-Saxon economic model must be avoided at all costs, despite it leading in the UK to "an unemployment rate half that of France's, a minimum wage raised by 40 per cent in five years, health spending doubled over the same period, steadily increasing purchasing power, years of sustained growth, low interest rates and 2 million children lifted from below the poverty line".

Of course, Britain's economic and social example is not perfect. But, a week away from Britain beginning its six-month presidency, now may be the ideal window of opportunity for Europeans to take a long, hard look at what Europe means, and should mean, to its workers.