New Times, 4 December 1998

I do not think that I am the only person in Britain who reckons Oskar Lafontaine is a good thing, but there have been a few times in the past month when I have wondered.
His remarks about the need for the countries of the European Union to harmonise their tax policies have attracted a quite extraordinary outpouring of venom here – and not just from the anti-European press and the Tories.
That the Sundubbed the German finance minister ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ was hardly surprising (though the space it allocated to doing it, three pages, certainly was). Nor was there anything new in William Hague’s reiteration of his party’s tired xenophobia.
But they were joined in their synthetic outrage by others of a normally pro-European disposition – most significantly, the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the prime minister, Tony Blair. “Britain has a veto on tax policy and we will not hesitate to use that if we have to,” declared Brown. “It is by cutting taxes, not raising them, that is the way forward to create jobs.”
In British political terms, it is easy enough to understand why Brown and Blair reacted as they did. They firmly believe that Labour won the 1997 general election because they spent five years assuring the electorate that Labour had ceased to be a party of “tax and spend”. Because tax levels are lower in Britain than everywhere else in the EU apart from Ireland, harmonisation would almost certainly mean an increase in British taxes. So harmonisation is politically unthinkable.
From an economic point of view, the Brown-Blair position is just as easy to grasp. They believe that Britain’s low business taxes and anti-pollution taxes have helped attract inward investment. Harmonisation will reduce Britain’s competitive advantage over its European neighbours.
But this of course is precisely why Lafontaine and nearly everyone else on the continental European centre-left favours harmonisation. To them, Brown and Blair are trying to have their cake and eat it. They want all the advantages of access to the giant affluent EU market – to the extent that they might even sign up for membership of the euro. But they want Britain to undercut continental disincentives to pollute and undercut the continental ‘social wage’. Although they want Britain to benefit from continental infrastructure spending, they don’t want to pay the fair share of the costs.
Worse, if Britain manages to scupper harmonisation, the temptation will grow for other EU governments to emulate its “free rider” position, which in turn could set off a frenzy of competitive tax-cutting that destroyed the capacity of most EU countries to maintain generous welfare states and high infrastructure spending. That would be a betrayal of everything most continental social democrats stand for, and they are quite right to want to stop it.
The spat over harmonisation might turn out to be insignificant. My hunch, however, is that it is a foretaste of a rocky relationship between the British Labour government and the rest of the EU over the next few years.
With the single currency in place from 1 January, the participants in monetary union will have a mass of common problems to solve – and Britain, as a non-participant, will necessarily find itself out of the loop. In these circumstances, it might well be that Brown and Blair will have to threaten use of the British veto to have any influence on EU macroeconomic policy (and not just on taxation). But the more they throw their weight around, the less respect they will command among their partners.  
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