Richard North, 15/09/2004  

When news comes in fits and starts, as it so often does, there are quiet days and others when so much comes crowding in that it is difficult to know where to start. Today is one of those days.

The trouble is that the dominant issue for this Blog is the carve-up in the North-East referendum campaign – of some considerable interest to our readers as well, to judge from the comments – which makes it hard to focus on anything else. Altogether, that makes for a bad day.

But addressing the wider issues hardly lightens the mood. The Daily Telegraph carries two important stories in the business section – affording some relief from the trivial soap opera story of Blair who “nearly quit over family” on the front page.

In the first of these stories, by the indomitable Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the headline says it all: "EU axes opt-out from 48-hour working week".

It appears that most employees are to be stripped of their right to work more than 48 hours a week and firms are to face extra costs and paperwork under a "Stalinist" directive being drawn up by the EU commission. The proposal is expected to be approved by the full commission next week, and gives trade unions and mandatory staff councils a veto on whether individuals can choose to exceed the 48-hour limit. It prohibits all workers spending more than 65 hours week on the job in any week.

Critics cite it as further evidence that Brussels has "lost the plot" as Europe slides deeper into economic and scientific decline, with annual growth far below China, India and the United States.

What is delightful and so true, is the closing comment: "The draft was written by the commission's social affairs directorate, described by one EU diplomat yesterday as reminiscent of '1970s Stalinists' and divorced from economic reality". And your point is?

The story is also covered in The Times, and both are worth reading.

The second of the Telegraph stories, written by Tessa Thorniley, covers the "EU emissions plan", which is described in the headline as "weak and costly". Now there's a surprise.

Industry bodies and energy analysts have attacked the EU's "controversial emissions trading scheme", claiming it will "raise costs for British industry and fail to cut carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere". They claim the scheme is "too weak" to discourage power generation at coal-fired plants - which produce between two and three times more CO2 than gas-fired plants - and will squeeze the UK's competitive industrial edge.

Britain, needless to say, is exceeding targets agreed under the Kyoto Protocol for its part in the EU scheme, with proposals to cut CO2 emissions on 1990 levels by 20 percent by 2010. But John Bower, sector analyst and former fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, is cited as saying: "We might as well not bother with the ETS, it will not have sufficient impact to make a difference."

What is so profoundly depressing about this it confirms the well-found critics who quite rightly point out that the whole of the Kyoto Protocol is a waste of space. It will cost untold amount of money, without having anything more than the most marginal effect on the rate of global warming – even if you believe it is man-made. Yet, over the last few days, we have seen first Howard and now Blair buy in fully to the Kyto hype, and are both now seeking to drag the US into the maw – a fruitless endeavour if ever there was one.

The Blair crusade was, of course, predictable, but the opportunity was there for Howard to strike out with a robust, common-sense policy of countering the hype – especially in view of the burgeoning cost of EU environmental legislation.

Now, both Labour and the Conservatives are fielding virtually identical policies, completely in-line with EU policy. In aligning himself so closely with the hype, Howard has thrown away the opportunity to take a robust line against the EU's eco-garbage, and weakened the case for fighting against the constitution – where the "benefits" of the EU's environmental activities will feature highly.

As I said, it's a bad day.

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