I spent a truly surreal hour or two today in the European parliament’s Unemployment Committee. On the basis that a problem shared is a problem dumped, let me tell you about it. The first measure we discussed was “Promoting Youth Access to the Labour Market etc etc etc”. There was a long debate about whether unpaid internships should be made illegal, or whether they should be subjected to a maximum period of unpaid work, or whether unpaid internships should be conditional on the provision of some formal qualification or certificate at the end of the internship period. (Bear in mind that the European parliament is a hotbed of internships). There was a great deal more worthy pontificating about apprenticeships and traineeships.
Then we had a brief session on “Corporate Social Responsibility in International Trade Agreements”, swiftly followed by “Remuneration of Directors of Listed Companies etc etc…”. There was a sincere discussion of the maximum acceptable ratio between the highest-paid and lowest-paid employees; how much if any of total emoluments should be performance-related (i,.e. bonuses); and whether bonuses should be short or long-term. We touched on the desirability of banning Golden Parachutes. We went on to “Atypical Contracts etc etc etc…”, which seems to be an attempt to regulate temporary and freelance work out of existence. This was followed by “Precarious Women Workers”. Honest. I’m not making this up. I couldn’t make it up. I presume that female trapeze artistes would qualify as “Precarious Women Workers”.
What I saw was a group of worthy-but-wet social liberal MEPs pontificating about employment matters, when they simply had no idea what they were talking about, and no way of assessing the potential impact of their proposals on unemployment, wage levels or economic growth. I doubt if any of them have so much as run a whelk stall.
Today we also had our new Europe Minister David Lidington in Brussels, and he shared with us his idea that the current recession should be the ideal opportunity to convince our EU partners of the need for radical labour law deregulation, for free and flexible labour markets. I agree 100% with David’s objectives. They make perfect sense. But I am less sanguine about achieving them, because the mood of the Unemployment Committee is quite clear. They too feel we need an EU response to the recession, but their prescription is the exact opposite. Because jobs are under threat, they want higher social security spending and more “worker protection” (as they mendaciously call it). Tighten the regulatory screw. Make labour markets more rigid.
This perhaps illustrates why I use the term “Unemployment Committee”. It also explains my belief that the European Union is beyond reform, and deserves to be put out of its misery.