John Haylett explains in the Morning Star, why the only sensible vote in the referendum for trade unionists and socialists is to withdraw from the EU.
Twenty-eight years since French diplomat Jacques Delors was invited to the TUC Congress at Bournemouth to schmooze delegates about the delights of a “social Europe” the penny still hasn’t dropped with many in the trade union movement.
Only rail unions Aslef and RMT, together with the bakers’ BFAWU, have thrown their weight behind the movement to leave the EU. The rest either play the Emperor’s New Clothes game of claiming still to be able to discern a “social Europe” or accept that things aren’t too good but suggest they can be changed.
The TUC has just published a piece by Michael Pigeon warning of ten “workers’ rights at risk if we leave.” These include paid holidays, equal rights for part-time workers, parental rights, equal pay for equal work, working time limits, health and safety standards and protection from discrimination.
Paid holidays have existed in Britain since the 1871 Bank Holidays Act and were widespread, largely through collective bargaining, long before the EU working time directive was passed in 2003.
The EU employment equality directive was issued in 2000, but before that we had the 1970 Equal Pay Act, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, the 1976 Race Relations Act and the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act — all agreed by the Westminster Parliament without input from Brussels.
EU directives on paternity leave, the 48-hour working week and rules on transfers of undertakings when a company is taken over all had to be enacted at Westminster to take effect.
Leaving the EU does not mean that they would automatically fall. Any government that wanted to end these measures would have to go through the same legislative process to repeal them. In addition, John Major negotiated a full opt-out from the social chapter enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, while Tony Blair did similarly with the 48-hour weekly limit in the working time directive.
Former probation officers’ union leader and TUC general council member Judy McKnight now sits on the tripartite EU economic & social committee. She draws a clear line between the approach taken by David Cameron in his negotiations with the other twenty seven EU states and that of trade unionists, which might well have been expected. But McKnight goes one step beyond by saying that British trade unionists want a future as “part of the EU, part of a Europe that is based on the principles of solidarity.”
This, to her, means “working with the council, the commission and employers to promote greener and fairer growth by boosting investment, productivity and living standards and by promoting social and employment rights, including fair terms for labour mobility, not by joining in a race to the bottom.”
This, presumably, is the same EU that nailed the Greek working class to the wall, ordering its government to privatise huge swathes of the public sector and to slash jobs, salaries and pensions as the price of bailing out the largely foreign-owned private banking sector. The EU Commission, European Central Bank and other “partners” don’t seem to have been reading the same dream-world script that McKnight and her colleagues share.
It isn’t just Greece. The dominant EU power is Germany, which has insisted for almost a decade on a strict neoliberal economic policy. It cut living standards and benefit entitlement for German workers to reduce employment costs and boost exports, but its single-minded ruthless approach has had a more severe effect further afield. So-called peripheral nations such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus, Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the monetarist orthodoxy that has wrecked jobs, living standards and the public sector.
Italy shares with Greece the “honour” of having its elected government turfed out to be replaced by an EU-approved board of technocrats – in reality, bankers, the very people who precipitated the global economic crisis.
These countries, in common with Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, now face a future of exporting their youth to the more powerful economies of western and northern Europe, sending remittances home to dependents.
One of Cameron’s most headline-grabbing “demands” at the negotiations was to end for four years the right of migrant workers in Britain to send child benefits back to their home countries. His inability to push through this nasty measure excited some derision from right-wing anti-EU opponents who said that he “promised to get half a loaf, begged for a crust and came home with crumbs.”
However, this ignores Cameron’s real success in securing immunity from EU regulation for the City of London, thus confirming the interests he really represents and repaying the finance sector for its support.
While the Prime Minister succeeded where it mattered most to him and his closest colleagues, he did nothing to alter a situation where unscrupulous British employers recruit workers in other EU states to work here, often at unfeasibly low rates.
His rhetoric about wanting to restrict immigration from other EU states wins a political trick in persuading some British workers that Bulgarian or Romanian workers are the main problem rather than a rapacious capitalist class.
Construction companies have been to the fore in opposing Britain’s exit from the EU, precisely because of the labour issue. “The longer-term impact is that it will potentially cause issues around skills and the availability of labour, which is a big problem anyway,” one employer told Inside Housing.
Engineering construction union GMB is organising three demonstrations this Tuesday in Port Talbot, Rotherham and Dunbar at three energy-related sites in protest at the undercutting of the nationally agreed skilled workers’ rate of £16.64 an hour. According to the EU posted workers directive, contractors employing labour from third countries should follow national agreements, but the rate for skilled workers on these jobs is around £7 an hour. The GMB notes that employers are increasingly ignoring this legal requirement and is livid about this example of social dumping. Its argument is not with workers coming to Britain but with employers paying them less than half the going rate.
So where is the legal remedy for the union and its thousands of members denied the right to work on installations for which they are trained, capable and ready?
The European Court of Justice may not be too much help, having already approved in its Viking, Laval, Ruffert and similar rulings the right of employers to sidestep national agreements by bringing in workers paid at the rate applicable in their homeland.
So much for the near-mythical social Europe and the “principles of solidarity” evoked by McKnight and others.
Social Europe belongs to another age – certainly before the Lisbon Treaty was implemented in 2009, since when the mantra has been “competitiveness” emulating the German example of a slimmed-down state and higher productivity to increase profitability and shareholder dividends.
The sinister, secret negotiations taking place at present to create a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free-trade agreement between the US and the EU are part of that programme. EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem is responsible for those negotiations that will be binding on Britain and every other member state even though she is neither elected by nor accountable to any electorate. She has consulted widely – or at least as widely as the membership of the European Roundtable of Industrialists, which is the source of much EU legislation advanced by the equally unelected and unaccountable European Commission.
We know that it will allow big business to sue national governments in special non-domestic courts over action that affects their profits. None of this should surprise anyone. The EU DNA was discernible in the 1956 Rome Treaty that set up the Common Market, which purported to be a free-trade area but was always intended as a political union superstate.
Fantasists such former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis may float EU democratisation projects such as his own Democracy in Europe pipe-dream, but there is no mechanism for remaking the EU – and deliberately so.
The European Parliament isn’t a parliament. It can’t propose laws. That right is reserved to the Commission. MEPs cannot change the direction of the EU.
It is not time for Britain – nor, it could equally be said, for other states – to entrust the future of its people to the vagaries of a bureaucratic finance-capital cabal.
The only sensible vote in the referendum for trade unionists and socialists is to withdraw from the EU.
John Haylett is Morning Star political editor.