Battler pulls no punches

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson's highly unusual career defies easy political description.

The ultimate British political insider, Mr Mandelson won a reputation as a feared manipulator when he worked with his close friend Tony Blair to fashion the New Labour revolution of the 1990s.

But rocked by two political scandals and dumped from cabinet, few took him at his word when he declared, 'I'm a fighter, not a quitter' in 2001. Urbane, smooth and waspish, Mr Mandelson hardly seemed like a political street brawler ready for a long fight.

But he survived, prospered and six years on, Mr Mandelson may have embarked on his toughest fight yet. Three years into his term as EU trade commissioner, he took the gloves off this week in his effort to reduce a spiralling trade deficit with China and forge easier access for European firms.

Long-simmering concerns erupted into a public row as Mr Mandelson headed to Beijing for the annual China-EU summit. At the opening of the International Food Safety Forum in Beijing, Mr Mandelson faced the public wrath of Vice-Premier Wu Yi after criticising what he said was China's worsening food safety record and 'tidal wave' of counterfeits.

'During the summer, some Chinese officials pointed out that less than 1 per cent of China's exports to Europe had alleged health risk. But Europe imports half a billion worth of goods from China every day - so even 1 per cent is not acceptable,' he said. 'Consumer safety is a zero compromise issue.'

Ms Wu, known as the 'Iron Lady', was not amused - and let Mr Mandelson know as she spoke to him publicly after his speech. 'I am extremely dissatisfied,' she said, adding that Mr Mandelson should have saved his remarks for more formal bilateral discussions rather than a public forum.

The summit ended with agreement by both sides to hold more talks - probably the best result that could be seriously expected given the rising tensions. The 27-nation EU is now China's biggest trading partner - with an 'unsustainable' trading deficit that Mr Mandelson warns is growing at Euro15 million (HK$172.4 million) an hour.

He pointed to an array of issues geared to creating the level playing field that China has committed to improving as part of its entry to the World Trade Organisation.

These include worsening regulation, counterfeiting and favouritism shown towards state enterprises.

He also warned of rising hostility among politicians and the public in Europe, raising the prospect of a trade war if Europe forced action.

Not even a strengthened yuan - the west's long-held hope - would solve all the troubles at a stroke.

'China has got to earn its place in the international trade system, not simply by taking advantage of it - but to make sure that it is providing a level playing field and proper market access,' he said. 'Otherwise, that growing deficit is going to make people increasingly angry and resort to the sort of emergency action that we want to avoid.

'I want to see discrimination against our goods and services end. I want to see proper rights respected for all European businesses and I want to see the legal system used to protect our intellectual property rights, not facilitate their abuse.'

Mr Mandelson spoke in the garden suite of a leading Singapore hotel. It was a hot afternoon and his aides and journalists struggled with the heat. The man himself appeared relaxed in a bright blue tropical suit, a study in icy calm. His long frame stretched out of a chair, he sat with hands steepled throughout. When asked if he detected any sign that Beijing was poised to change, he tilted his head back in a theatrical sigh and said: 'Frankly, no.'

Throughout his career, Mr Mandelson has shown many signs of taking appearances seriously. At his height in the heady early days of New Labour, he seemed to relish his 'Prince of Darkness' reputation as a formidable backroom operator as he rebranded a party seen as stodgily socialist into a dynamic, centrist power. Spin was in.

Placed in the cabinet as a minister without portfolio and then trade secretary, his power ranked alongside then finance minister Gordon Brown, who has replaced Mr Blair as prime minister. Given his Machiavellian image, few seemed to weep as Mr Mandelson stepped down in late 1998 after reports of a #373,000 (HK$6 million) house loan from a ministerial colleague.

His friendship and importance to Mr Blair remained, however. Less than a year later, Mr Blair ignored the critics to recognise Mr Mandelson's negotiating skills, naming him to the highly sensitive post of Northern Ireland secretary.

Despite being seen as successful, he became embroiled in another scandal, this time over allegations of misconduct over passport applications from wealthy political supporters. He was cleared and finally rehabilitated as EU trade commissioner in 2004, much to the relief of his enemies within Labour, who feared his return to cabinet.

His private life, too, has attracted comment. A homosexual, Mr Mandelson has struggled to keep his love life out of the British media.

His troubles would have finished weaker characters. When he took his latest job, the BBC reported that William Hill bookmakers were offering odds of 3-1 that he would not finish his five-year term.

For all that, European envoys say he arrived at the commission as something of an unknown quantity. 'Peter was very much a domestic political figure,' said one senior Eastern European diplomat. 'We really didn't know him as a statesman or a regional figure at all ... but he's showed that he is highly intelligent and forceful in his defence of European trade interests. He's an incredible networker, too.'

That skill has been on display in the last week. In Singapore, Mr Mandelson said he was eager not just to deepen his ties with the likes of Ms Wu and his closest Chinese connection, Commerce Minister Bo Xilai , but also reach out to the next generation of mainland leaders, given government changes slated for March.

Quite how far it gets him in his latest battle, of course, is yet to be seen.

While not particularly well known in the region before taking his latest job, he has made several trips. He played, for example, a key role in the inconclusive WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December 2005.

Mr Mandelson cannot be accused of just taking cheap shots at China and the Asian region, given comments he made in the 1990s.

'Eclipsing all others is the Asian achievement of sustaining local cohesion alongside rapid economic change,' Mr Mandelson wrote in a commentary in The Times of London after a regional visit in 1996.

He noted the 'false picture' behind much of the sweatshop image. 'Profits are substantial and there are some very rich entrepreneurs, but what's wrong with that? The difference between many Asian countries and Britain is that, among the tiger economies, inequalities of wealth and income do not co-exist with the denial of opportunity and social cohesion that so many in Britain experience,' he wrote. 'The reason for this is a conscious attempt by government such as those in Japan, Korea and Singapore to give their workforce a stake in the country's economic success both at the workplace and in society.'