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Mildly, moistly Thatcherite is what this European Commission would like to be

Mildly, moistly Thatcherite is what this European Commission would like to be

24 September 2005

12:00 AM

24 September 2005

12:00 AM

If you want to discombobulate a Eurocrat, try calling him a Thatcherite. Gert-Jan Koopman, the European Commission’s otherwise articulate director of industrial policy and economic reform, threw up his hands in silent horror when I lobbed the epithet at him, though I meant it as a compliment. The game in Brussels these days — so I learnt from half a dozen conversations within a stone’s throw of the ultimate in glass houses, the Commission’s re-clad Berlaymont headquarters — is to advance a smaller-government, less-red-tape, jobs-and-growth agenda. But in the face of resurgent protectionism in France and elsewhere and the uncertain outcome of the German election, it is a game which requires an element of stealth. Hence the need to look astonished at any accusation of neo-liberalism, or worse.

Worst of all is to be called Thatcherite, which is a codeword in these parts for treating Old Europe’s ‘social model’ with contempt, while refusing point-blank to give up your EU budget rebate. But mildly, moistly Thatcherite is what this Commission would like to be — as evidenced last week by a proposal to scrap 70 draft laws described as ‘absurd’ by Commission President Barroso, on such matters as EU-wide regulation of sales promotions and weekend use of lorries. These are ‘things on which MEPs and Commission staff have been working for years,’ enthused Mr Koopman, a rising star whose skill in dealing with absurdities was honed as chef de cabinet to Neil Kinnock.

Koopman’s boss, the German socialist Gunter Verheugen, who holds the Commission’s enterprise and industry portfolio, is showing distinct signs of becoming an ex-socialist as he searches the mountain of existing Brussels legislation to see what else should be scrapped to keep the EU competitive. In the energy market, for example, Koopman says environmental regulation is important but cannot be imposed at all costs. ‘There’s no point in meeting Kyoto objectives by making energy so uncompetitive that we kick out whole industries — like aluminium smelting — that can no longer afford to operate here.’

It’s not all straight out of the Adam Smith handbook, however. Koopman is also prepared to defend the use of state aid in strategic areas such as hydrogen fuel research, where the Americans might otherwise gain a monopoly, and he tells me ominously that ‘there are 250 people in the Commission working on structural reform in member states’. But overall there is a refreshing change of tone. And changing the tone is often all that can be achieved in Europe’s ‘half-built governmental construct’, according to Peter Guilford, a trade consultant and former Commission spokesman.

Even Tony Blair can only hope to move the goalposts of debate about economic reform by a centimetre or two during the current UK presidency. As for the grands fromages of the Berlaymont, Guilford thinks they have not really been in the driving seat since the mass resignation of Jacques Santer’s Commission in 1999. And what with the demise of the new constitution, the dilution of the old Franco–German power axis, the failure to reach a deal on the budget, the absence of any progress towards a single market in services, and finally the textiles debacle with China, recent events have driven Eurocratic morale to a new low.

According to the Guilford thesis, the ‘bra wars’ saga gives the clearest indicator of the new balance of power, or lack of it, in Brussels. Essentially, a coalition of member countries with unreformed low-end textile manufacturing interests — including some new entrants from the east, as well as the usual Mediterranean suspects — ganged up to bamboozle the Commission into imposing the quotas against China which caused such chaos in the docks and shops and which Peter Mandelson has now been forced to dismantle.

Sympathies in Brussels seemed to lie considerably more with Mandy for this humiliation than was evident in the British media. Over here, he is much admired for his cleverness and wit, especially by diplomatic hostesses, but no one thought he had a hope of standing up to the member states that felt threatened by China. A source as close to him as I could get told me the episode was ‘not a defeat, but a political reality’. Again the point was made that progress towards free markets can be achieved only by stealth and compromise: if the Commission is not prepared to intervene from time to time to manage member states’ fears of being overwhelmed by cheap goods from the rest of the world, the outcry for protectionism will become even stronger.

So that is the picture in Brussels today. After 20 years of Delorsian megalomania, the Commission has finally seen sense and started to build a bonfire of its own vanities. But it commands so little confidence among member states that it can only nudge them ever so tentatively towards the economic reforms which might restore that confidence by taking millions of Europeans out of the dole queues. Perhaps Mr Koopman was right after all to reject the Thatcherite label: a watered-down version of the ideology may be there, but the other vital ingredient, an appetite for head-on action, is palpably absent.

A Brussels closure

It’s 25 years since I lived in Brussels, and the building in which I once managed a portfolio of loans to dodgy Latin America state borrowers has long since been taken over by a Catholic overseas aid charity: I hope they scatter their funds more sensibly than we did. Otherwise — apart from the billion-euro follies of the tarted-up Berlaymont and the monstrous European Parliament building — the city seems hardly to have changed at all.

It’s a far more civilised place than British Brussels-bashers habitually give it credit for: taxi-drivers are polite, eurocrats still tuck into a decent lunch however low their morale, and even the dingier parts of town have, for me, a certain nostalgic charm. Wandering the quartier behind the Berlaymont between meetings, I found myself drawn in an Anthony Powellish sort of way to a particularly dingy side street called Rue John Waterloo Wilson — scene of a liaison dangereuse which briefly distracted me from my loan-officer duties all those years ago.

I did not ring the doorbell of that third-floor bedsit to see whether the ghost of my youth was still there, but I wondered again — as I had done even in the depth of romantic trauma — who the blazes John Waterloo Wilson was. Google has nothing to offer on the subject, but if any kind reader can tell me, I might finally achieve what psychoanalysts call ‘closure’.

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