Third way away day 

Nicholas Watt

Young European politicians at a retreat outside London seek inspiration from the neo-cons to revive the centre-left vision, writes Nicholas Watt

Friday March 11, 2005

In the grand surroundings of Warren House, a 19th century pile on the outskirts of London where Edward VII used to wind down, the great and the good of Europe's centre left are gathering today for a brainstorming session.

Under the watchful eyes of Peter Mandelson and two former prime ministers, a host of young politicians from across Europe will put their names to a declaration that is designed to revive the third way.

Labelling themselves "the progressive generation", these under-40s hope their document will show the centre left can reclaim the political stage with classic third way ideas on promoting a market economy while driving up standards in public services.

The atmosphere at Warren House, where tomorrow's leaders are likely to spurn the chance of dancing the night away in a ballroom modelled on the hall of mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, will be slightly muted. This year's annual Policy Network retreat is a far cry from the days when third way warriors held sway in almost all the world's big industrialised countries - Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, Lionel Jospin in France and Giuliano Amato in Italy.

Only Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder are still in power and both are diminished figures compared with the late 1990s, when it appeared they would be stamping their vision across Europe and the industrialised world. Mr Mandelson today makes clear how far the third way elite has fallen when he speaks of "past mistakes" - by centre left governments across Europe - who fell from power after "ignoring voters' genuine anxieties over immigration, unemployment" and a host of other touchstone issues. Two former prime ministers who made such mistakes - Giuliano Amato in Italy and Poul Nyrup Rasmussen in Denmark - will be on hand this weekend to provide tips on where they went wrong.

Michiel van Hulten, a former Dutch MEP who, as co-chairman of the Young Progressive Network, is the driving force behind today's declaration, admits he has his work cut out now that a mere five of the EU's old 15 members have centre left governments. In the late 1990s, the figure stood at 13 out of 15.

"We want to take a leaf out of the book of the neo-cons in the United States," Mr Van Hulten says. "They have been incredibly successful over the past 10 to 15 years in building up a public policy agenda, which George Bush is now implementing. This has been missing from the centre left, where the thinking has been short term and disjointed."

Drawing up policy ideas that can secure agreement across Europe, even among like-minded politicians, is an almost impossible task, as today's declaration makes clear. A proposal that all EU countries abandon their veto on foreign policy is understood to have been the subject of intense debate at the summit, with British representatives determined not to give up one of the prime minister's famous "red lines" from the EU constitution negotiations.

But the proposal stayed in. The declaration says: "The newly enlarged EU must develop a credible and effective foreign and defence policy. Member states must be prepared to give up their power of veto in order to become more effective together, and to invest more in creating a more credible defence capability, including an appropriate role for the EU's neutral member states."

Such language will barely raise an eyebrow in Mr Van Hulten's Netherlands, a relatively small EU country whose standing in the world would increase if large countries, such as Britain, abandoned their veto on foreign policy. But this passage may go some way toward explaining why one of the young British politicians in the "progressive generation" is likely to find himself engaged in an intense discussion in a far flung corner of the grounds of Warren House when the signing ceremony takes place. Tipped for the cabinet after the election, the Cabinet Office minister David Miliband will not want to be directly associated with a commitment that would be exploited by the Eurosceptic tabloids.

Other elements in the declaration will be warmly welcomed by Mr Miliband, one of the brains behind Mr Blair who wrote Labour's manifesto for the 1997 landslide election victory. In language that would do the prime minister proud, the declaration says on public services: "There is no inherent reason why public services should be provided only by the state. The state's role is to regulate and guarantee access, to set and enforce standards and to police fair pricing. The private sector should play a role in the provision of public services, but only where this leads to higher quality, lower prices and increased choice."

Where Britain feels uneasy about the proposal on foreign policy, German and French politicians at the retreat might fear the reception they will receive back home if they sign up to a document written in such Thatcherite language. Mr Van Hulten is relaxed. "This declaration is designed to provoke debate. I wouldn't say think the unthinkable, because that is what Tony Blair said. But we have to look at the horizon beyond the next election."

Mr Miliband may beg to disagree, as he rushes back to Labour's campaign headquarters after the retreat this weekend to see whether the Tories have pulled off another pre-election stunt.

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