Britain’s relationship with Europe over the next five years depends on three key issues. One, of course, is the result of the general election. The second is the state of European economies. And the third is the political direction of the EU and its member states.
In terms of the general election, the TUC is, as always, neutral. We will work with whoever is elected, and we will press them to deliver for working people. In terms of Europe, that means protecting and extending the rights people have at work, including their right to decent jobs with good wages.
To the extent that we understand the prime minister’s strategy towards Europe, and assuming it is more than chasing his own backbenchers’ increasing euroscepticism or hoping that the tougher he sounds, the more UKIP’s vote will ebb away (neither of which seem to be working) it is difficult to see how it benefits business or working people, whether our interests are shared or separate.
We know from our contact with business that the promise (or rather, threat) of a referendum in two years’ time has a chilling effect on investment plans. And we know from their silence on the matter – and the fact that this is the only way the sums add up – that the Conservatives do not plan to repatriate power over rights to rest breaks and paid holidays so that they can extend them, or any other workers’ rights.
On the economics, Europe’s popularity among the British electorate is unsurprisingly low. Britain’s changing relationship with the European Union has, fundamentally, been transactional. If Europe is doing well, Britons enjoy being part of it.
But the current economic direction of the Council of Ministers and the European Commission is not an enviable one. Even David Cameron, showing his deep understanding of the term ‘chutzpah’ has condemned the way the EU has forced austerity on people around Europe – nowhere as much as in Greece, with its 25 per cent reduction in GDP and 50 per cent plus youth unemployment. He was right to keep Britain out of the new economic governance rules, even if he did it in the most undiplomatic and cack-handed manner – he was, for once, acting in line with the view of the European trade union movement.
We need a new path for Europe, and President Juncker’s investment plan shows that even he understands that, although he has offered far too little to get the economy growing again on a sustainable path. The ETUC has proposed an investment strategy which would create 11 million new, skilled jobs and provide access to a new digital future, with renewable energy and social housing.
And that is just one element of the new direction that Europe needs and that a British government should be proposing. As Pat McFadden MP has said, insecurity – not just in terms of defence and terrorism – is the spectre currently haunting Europe.
Zero hours contracts are just the latest example of the uncertainty that blights the anaemic recovery we are experiencing in Britain. Pay growth is sluggish if you are lucky – and there is a persistent threat that unscrupulous employers will take advantage of freedom of movement to exploit migrants and undercut existing workers while politicians turn Eastern Europeans into scapegoats for that insecurity, exploitation and overcrowding.
I welcome the argument that the single market must ensure dignity at work. And it goes further than that, because without rights at work and stronger unions, even growing economies will produce greater inequality, and that growth will become more and more difficult to deliver. The OECD has made clear that more equal societies grow faster. The IMF has discovered – albeit a bit late in the day – that inequality has grown because unions have been weakened.
And this is where British pragmatism meets European values. If we want a secure future for our children, if we want growth that is sustained, and fairly shared, if we want a Europe that works for Britain, then we need the European social model to be updated, and ‘updated’ isn’t a synonym for ‘shrunk’.
If we want companies to be good companies, they need to give their workforce a say in their decisions. If we want work to mean good jobs, then Europe needs a pay rise, too. And if we want a good life, then we need a British government to be pushing the consensus among European parties of whatever political persuasion, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, back to the centre ground of a social market, rather than an unfettered free market.
Finally, a word on sovereignty. As a trade unionist, I am familiar with the argument that unity is strength. That people are genuinely concerned about their lack of sovereignty is clear evidence that they feel insecure and unprotected from the often harsh downsides of globalisation. But the answer is not to pull up the drawbridge and hunker down. And it certainly isn’t to demand political sovereignty while allowing multinational corporations the power to exploit Investor-State Dispute Settlement processes in trade deals. Just as workers become more powerful if they combine, nations in an era of globalisation become better able to control their own destiny by pooling their sovereignty.
That is what the European Union is for, and we should be making the positive argument for how it could work for Britain, rather than simply laying us bare to the chill winds of unregulated markets.
Owen Tudor is Head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department