A beady eye on Blair

<strong>Francis Beckett</strong> on John Monks

Tony Blair probably rather hoped he'd heard the last of John Monks, the former TUC general secretary who once said that new Labour made pre-Blair Labour voters feel like the "embarrassing elderly relatives at a family gathering". But two years ago Monks decamped to Brussels, where he now runs the European Trade Union Confederation.

The ETUC used to be little more than a forum for senior union officials to have foreign trips and talk about international solidarity. But today it is increasingly a player, as unions begin to ape employers by working globally. And now Monks has expressed the confederation's suspicions of the new EU president. "Frankly," wrote Monks to Blair at the end of June, "for many years, the ETUC has seen the UK government as the main opponent of social Europe." He implied that there had been a continuous policy during the Thatcher and Blair years. And Monks knows what he is talking about. During the 1997 general election, then at the TUC, he had every confidence that Blair would reverse Thatcher's privatisation policy. "I wouldn't expect a Labour government to go down the direction that the Conservatives have been down - which is to clear out every potentially lucrative bit of the public sector," he said. He now knows different.

Something else he now knows is that Blair held a secret meeting before the election with Colin Marshall and Adair Turner, then leaders of the Confederation of British Industry, who expressed concern about the rights given to workers and unions by the European social chapter, which Labour was committed to sign. Blair told them not to worry and promised to block any pro-worker and pro-union proposals in the social chapter, such as maternity benefits or health and safety, if the CBI disapproved of them. Marshall and Turner went away very pleased. Monks didn't find out about it until years later.

He also didn't know about Peter Mandelson's secret 1997 mission to Germany to persuade its then chancellor, Helmut Kohl, to join Britain in blocking the directive on information and consultation, which aimed to stop employees hearing on the TV (or in some cases by text message) that their factory had been shut down and they were out of a job. But he knew that Britain went to war to block the directive and that Blair had led opposition to the proposed directive on agency workers, which would give them the same rights as permanent workers. "We would have it without the British government," said Monks. He knew Blair had managed to block the working time directive, which would stop people being forced to work longer than 48 hours a week. And he knew that a Dutch ETUC official was shocked to be told by a brisk young Blair aide: "We don't do collective bargaining."

European Christian Democrats - the nearest equivalent to our Conservatives - find Blair too anti-union for comfort. In May 2004, the Luxembourg prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, visited No 10 to discuss the Luxembourg presidency of the EU, due in January 2005. Christian Democrat Juncker said he wanted to go some way to meeting the ETUC's call for a charter of fundamental human rights, and Blair said: "That's the most old Labour speech I've heard in Downing Street for a long time." Soon afterwards the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, promised the CBI that Britain would block Juncker's proposals. "We're not going to change Thatcher's laws and we're not going to let Europe change them," he said.

Blair made his entry as EU president with a speech that was acknowledged, by Monks among others, to be a tour de force. Meanwhile his spinners were as busy. What the PM means, they said, is that the Franco-German model of Europe is dead; long live the Anglo-Saxon model. Does this mean that the pure Atlanticists have won, as they did under Thatcher? Is Blair proving to be a secret but thoroughgoing Eurosceptic? These days French politicians talk darkly about "America and its little helper Britain".

But Monks, still the optimist, hopes something can be salvaged. He claims to see a new and more union-friendly tone in Blair's speech. His letter to Blair talks of a new project - a union-friendly and public-sector-friendly Europe, which is not a pale imitation of the US. He wants Blair to work for progress on the working time directive and to look for a compromise that would allow the EU to offer protection to agency workers. He wants "urgent action to respond creatively to the demands of working people".

The moon would be nice, too.