From the FT archive: Hard truths of 1992

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

This article was first published in the Financial Times of March 21, 1988.

When Britain nominated Lord Cockfield as its senior member of the European Commission in 1984, the choice was widely viewed as uninspired and even as a snub to Brussels. Then in his late sixties, little in his personal or political credentials seemed to mark him out as a well-qualified candidate.

However, in the past three years he has proved astonishingly effective in his job. As chief custodian of the EC's 1992 single market plan, he has seized command of what is arguably Europe's most important economic integration initiative since the Rome Treaty and marched it forward with vigour and determination.

Abandoning the discredited EC doctrine of imposed harmonisation and centralised regulation, he has placed the emphasis on radical liberalisation and mutual recognition of national rules and standards. Though even this politically more realistic approach has not prevented slippage in the legislative timetable; progress so far owes much to his dogged persistence in holding the commission and EC ministers to their obligations.

At times, he has perhaps gone too far. His dogmatic insistence on the need to align national indirect taxes is based on debatable economic logic and has engendered political hostility which could jeopardise other, more important, parts of the single market plan. Nor have his high-handed manner and apparent pleasure at dressing down ministers like unruly schoolboys advanced the plan's progress.

Nowhere has his performance more visibly aroused political hostility than in Whitehall. Suspicions of 'disloyalty' have bred a growing whispering campaign, suggesting that he is unlikely to be reappointed when his term expires at the end of this year.

The case against him is muddled. He is accused of not having stood up for the British Government view. Yet the prime duty of a commissioner is - or should be - to act in the interests of the whole EC, not as the spokesman of his own country. More oddly, his principal sin appears to be an excess of zeal in implementing the very model of a freer European market which successive UK governments have long held up as the EC's holy grail. Official British criticisms have sometimes been dressed up in suggestions that he is hell-bent on harmonisation for its own sake. That is unfair, and conflicts with complaints heared elsewhere in Europe that he is an unreconstructed Anglo-Saxon liberal.

The truth seems to be that Britain is only now awakening to the practical consequences of the genuine common market it has demanded for so long and to which it and other EC countries committed themselves by treaty in 1985. By definition, closer integration cannot be achieved without compromise and some surrender of national autonomy. Any system which forces others to open their markets requires reciprocal concessions.

No EC government finds that easy, and all are guilty of a wide gap between what they say about 1992 and what they do in Brussels. But some, at least, have realised that no progress can be made simply by expecting the rest of Europe to become just like them. West Germany's recent agreement, after many years of foot-dragging, to Community-wide competition in industrial insurance is a striking example, which represents a huge concession to the UK.

Much the most worrying feature of current British attitudes, however, is that they hint at a cooling towards some key aspects of the enterprise. Doubts are being voiced in some quarters about whether the City of London's role as Western Europe's premier international financial market is best advanced by encouraging liberalisation elsewhere in the EC. That is short-sighted thinking. The efficiency of the City and other industrial sectors is best promoted by keen international competition, not by encouraging other centres to remain under-developed.

The EC will never create a single market if every country insists on gaining in every single area. That would be contrary to the whole theory of international trade. Britain should set an example by overcoming petty cavils and offering Lord Cockfield a second term. If he declines, the Government should ensure that his successor in the internal market job possesses similar independence, integrity and single-minded resolve.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.