Magazine article The Spectator

Mildly, Moistly Thatcherite Is What This European Commission Would like to Be

Magazine article The Spectator

Mildly, Moistly Thatcherite Is What This European Commission Would like to Be

Article excerpt

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. …

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