Thursday, May 12, 2005

An Eye On the Referendum?

The Telegraph today leads with the story that the European Parliament has voted to end the opt-out of the Social Chapter, thereby forcing all employees to have a maximum working week of 48 hours, whether they like it or not. No doubt the limit on the amount of time that can be worked will lead to new calls for the minimum wage to be raised so as not to jepoardise those on the lowest incomes.

I just can't see the need to limit the working week in this way. Unless there is evidence that employees curry extreme favour by working longer hours (ie other employees are effectively discriminated against for upholding their rights), then such an illiberal measure really isn't necessary. All it will do is provide a further constraint upon business and act so as to be inimical to growth.

My real worry, of course, is why this has been pushed through right now. Avid newsreaders will know that the referendum on the EU constitution in France is rapidly approaching; it looks like the first major hurdle to climb, and the chances at present are that it will fail. Unlike in Britain, the opposition to the constitution in France has come from the left. The socialists there fear that it will put the social model under threat, and impose "Anglo-Saxon" economic norms upon an unwilling France. Cancelling the opt-out to the Social Chapter seems to me to be a very effective way of sending out a message that the social model is safe.

Unfortunately, the Pasqua/Galloway oil scandal is now dominating the news, and so my trawl of French websites to see how prominently the news was displayed hasn't really been that successful. But the British veto on such legislation was avoided in this case by presenting the measure as a necessary step to safeguard "health and safety" in the workplace. Why would such a step have been taken in this manner if there wasn't an eye on the French referendum?

Of couse, such a move is inherently risky - it is more grist to the mill of the British eurosceptics. Then again, much of "old Europe" wouldn't mind if Atlanticist Britain had to be the country seen to be pulling the plug on the "European project" - our objections to the EU would become all the more dismissable. Yet I cannot see any good reason for the legislation to be passed. It is surely overextending the competence of government to interfere so directly in such matters. However, the one solace I got from my French newspaper search was this article - "Why France is incapable of creating a Microsoft". The number of new companies (ie created since 1960) in Europe's top 25 is 1; in the US it is 6. The article accepts that France's efforts to inspire innovation have failed. If articles like this keep appearing, it may not be too long before the MEPs put two and two together and realise they may just be over-regulating our business.