With the EU about to grow again, Anthony Giddens found its citizens unsure of their raison d'être . But, Michael North hears, he thinks reforms can restore faith and help even the Brits learn from neighbours
After a couple of years of hard research on the European Union, Lord Giddens is keen to lighten the tone: "A guy goes into the European Commission building and when he gets in he sees this yellow line down the middle of the corridor and he asks: 'What's that for?' And a bureaucrat tells him: 'That's to stop the people coming into work late bumping into the ones leaving work early.'"
During 2005-06, Giddens and about 20 fellow European academics examined the challenges facing an enlarged EU, whose membership is set to grow to in the new year with the entry of Romania and Bulgaria. Giddens, a renowned political theorist and former director of the London School of Economics, led the project for Policy Network, an international think-tank, with Patrick Diamond, former special adviser in Tony Blair's Policy Unit, and Roger Liddle, Blair's former adviser on Europe.
Seminars with state leaders and other key players were organised all over Europe. The research was recently published in two books: Europe in the Global Age , by Giddens, and Global Europe, Social Europe , a collection of essays by the researchers involved to which Giddens contributed.
"It's been a fairly high-powered enterprise," Giddens says with typical understatement. "We talked to political leaders and other academics. It's had some impact because Roger Liddle works in the European Commission on issues of social justice, which has been a weak thing in the Lisbon Agenda. (Lisbon) is all about competitiveness, but it's rather weak when it discusses how to help people through the changes."
When we meet, Giddens is just back from Poland. He says: "Like several East European countries, Poland seems to have gone backwards. It's got populist groups in government, it's very unstable. It's a change from a few years ago when it seemed to be making a really stable transition. It's the same as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia: when these East European countries were joining up to the EU, it gave them a clear goal - all their energies were concentrated on meeting the criteria for getting in. Once in, the old conflicts came to the fore again."
Giddens says that the Polish people he met tended to share the view that the country functioned in spite of its Government, but he thinks good government is key to Poland's future stability. "Only 51 per cent of Poles of working age are in work, compared with 75 per cent in the UK. Poland has a large, inefficient agricultural sector. If you are going to change those things, you need a fairly forceful and forward-looking government."
Giddens stresses the need for significant reforms across the EU. Though reluctant to label these ideas a "third way" for Europe, the phrase synonymous with his work that defined a new political generation, he accepts that his ideas on Europe follow similar lines.
As with his social democrat model of government, he says the EU project's emphasis on a European social model - a welfare policy package that covers every aspect of a European citizen's life - goes hand in hand with economic growth. "There's an unfortunate polarisation between those who support the expansion of markets and argue solely in terms of the efficiency of markets, and those who support the social model and see themselves as having to block the market's advance. If you look around Europe at the countries that have done well, they are the ones that have reconciled those two things, where one is the condition of the other.
"Scandinavian countries are the most advanced countries in Europe, and they are the most open economies in Europe, with the highest levels of social protection and the lowest levels of inequality; and not just because of taxation but because they have undergone more reforms than other EU countries, and because they have managed to set up a system that is effective on both economic and social justice levels."
Giddens says that Europe can work well if countries learn from one another and adopt and adapt the best practices from the leading nations in each policy area. In one memorable chapter of Europe in the Global Age , he gives his recipe for "a Europe to take on the world". He says it would have "Finnish levels of ICT penetration, German industrial productivity, Swedish levels of equality, Danish levels of employment, Irish economic growth, Italian cooking (washed down with Hungarian wine, drunk sparingly), Czech levels of literary culture, French levels of healthcare, Luxembourg's level of gross domestic product per head, Norwegian levels of education, British cosmopolitanism and Cypriot weather".
Giddens says that Britain under new Labour has achieved success in economic growth, youth employment and a more effective welfare state, but he believes that Britons have a lot to learn from their neighbours.
"The British tend to be arrogant towards the rest of Europe, supposing that they have it right and everyone else has it wrong. I think the Brits can learn an awful lot from the successes of the Scandinavian countries, or on a policy level from different countries that have pioneered alternative forms of reacting to job loss that are more profound than the ones we have here. For example, some countries are experimenting with trying to retrain workers before job losses occur in failing industries."
Britain is a traditionally "Atlanticist" country (Denmark similarly defines itself by its maritime history), and it scores lowest on the "EU barometer measuring belief in Europe" and highest in the Euroscepticism stakes.
Giddens calls for more commitment from the British to the EU project. "I feel that at the moment the UK is free-riding a bit on Europe, trying to get the benefits without the commitment. I would like Gordon Brown, if he is the next Prime Minister, to take a more positive line. The EU has a lot of support across Europe on energy policy, climate change, control of international terrorism and crime, a range of things you can much more easily provide at a collective level rather than as a nation. The Brits should try to be in there with all that."
Much will depend on the performance of the core European countries, France, Germany and Italy, in getting the right mix of social policy and economic advancement. "What happens in those countries will make a difference to the future of Europe. We are hoping for good political leadership there."
Giddens is optimistic about Germany as economic growth improves thanks to a cut in wage costs that has made its industry competitive again; and he says French companies are leading the way with smart strategies that "filter into the rest of society", for example, using a cosmopolitan globalised workforce. But Italy has big problems: "It's got massive debt; the Government hasn't really developed a welfare system at all; it has a very low birth rate; and some of its industries are very threatened by Chinese competition."
As for the vexed question of how far Europe will expand, Giddens says there are no ready answers. He recalls being in Berlin when the Wall came down in 1989, redrawing the map of Europe and recasting EU ambitions: "Suddenly you had an open boundary to the east, new identity problems, workers coming in from all over the place. People had anxieties about that."
Despite the anxieties, Giddens says the impact of mass immigration on economies has been hard to predict: in the UK, for example, some minority groups do better than the majority white population in terms of income and professional qualifications. Moreover, migrant workers are contributing to a booming Irish economy.
But should the EU embrace states with cultures deemed alien and perhaps a threat by many Europeans, for instance, Turkey? Giddens says: "There is a rise of nationalist and religious movements in Turkey; most Turkish people I have spoken to are against EU membership and want the country to have a more traditionalist posture. If Turkey does not join the EU, it could align itself with Russia and Iran, or even with other countries whose connections to the West are oblique. I think it would be better to have a thriving secular country in the EU rather than one that has reverted to a religious state."
With the challenges thrown up by expansion comes a need for EU reform, Giddens says. He favours, for instance, a single EU foreign minister with more global presence and an elected European Council president sitting for a two-and-a-half year term (rather than six months) to give more continuity and stronger leadership.
Admitting that he is not surprised that people struggle to understand the EU's workings and to identify themselves as European, he says he would like to see the EU's message and policies made clearer. "There are endless treaties, endless conventions, none of them very luminous - a lot are just named after cities, such as the Pisa Process, the Lisbon Process, the Copenhagen Criteria... If you ask someone in the street what subsidiarity is, they are not likely to know. It takes a lot of investment of time to understand the EU. You can see why it's hard for people to grasp it."