UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Europe - the dog that didn't bark at #uNDC15‏

As the clock ticked down on a bail out deal between the Greek Government and the Troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF – UNISON conference was debating emergency composite motion 2 on ‘UNISON’s political campaign after the General Election.’

However this omnibus composite (agreed between the NEC and 5 branches) was silent on Britain’s relationship with the EU - an issue which is central to the political agenda of the Tory Government and attracting growing concern in some parts of the British trade union movement (see below).

This omission is all the more remarkable given David Cameron’s ‘re-negotiation’ is, at the behest of the CBI, targeted on the removal of employment and social rights. The European Commission has been the main driver of austerity economics in Europe as well as the insidious TTIP trade agreement with the USA.

On the day UNISON conference got underway the Financial Times was reporting that Trade unions say ‘no guarantees’ of support in EU referendum and included a quote from Dave Prentis that the ‘Yes’ camp could not take UNISON’s support for granted. In a similar vein, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has warned the European Parliament President that ‘reforming Europe should not be about reducing workers’ rights such as paid holiday rights and fairness for temporary and agency workers, or deeper austerity’

The GMB also is alert to these dangers with Paul Kenny stating this week that ‘If what David Cameron brings back from the re-negotiations tilts the balance even further away from standards for workers, as the CBI wants, many organizations traditionally in favour will campaign for a No vote’

It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. Europe is reeling from the effects of austerity economics.

The social cost of austerity is enormous. Oxfam have likened the impact of austerity in Europe to that of IMF structural adjustment programmes in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s and 90s. We are seeing growing inequality and poverty and weak economic performance in the EU.

Conservatives in the UK portray Europe’s economic problems as being rooted in too much regulation, too much public spending or too generous social protections. But this is increasingly untenable.

Few social democratic parties are in power in the EU, and the European Commission has pursued a neo-liberal pro-business agenda for years. Since the financial crisis of 2007/8, policy-makers in Europe have promoted cuts to public spending, privatisation of public assets and the weakening of social protections. Two-thirds of EU countries have implemented public sector pay freezes or cuts since the crisis began in 2008. Across Europe, it is austerity policies that are failing.

The current dominance of neo-liberal ideas in Europe is evident in the European Fiscal Compact. This compels signatory states to adhere to strict public deficit rules. This brings downward pressure on wages and working conditions that can only exacerbate the current crisis. The ETUC has criticised this Compact as its rigid economic rules could mean permanent austerity in Europe

The European Commission has also initiated the REFIT agenda to remove regulatory "burdens" from business. Under REFIT, the Commission has withdrawn health and safety proposals on the protection of workers against work-related cancers and musculoskeletal disorders. The Commission has been criticised for readily bending to the will of business – dropping social protections and exempting small and medium enterprises from regulations.

The European Commission also discourages any ‘over-compliance’ or ‘gold-plating’ of regulations by national governments. Rather than establishing minimums that national governments can choose to build on, the European Commission encourages regulations to be treated as maximum standards.

There are though some European-level rules that are clearly of great value to our members. Regulation in areas including TUPE and working time – reduces the threat of a ‘race to the bottom’ in labour market and environmental standards, and means that at least some of the benefits of the single market are shared with ordinary working people.

We should be very wary of David Cameron’s agenda in seeking to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with Europe. Cameron’s sights are set on removing European-level regulations and social protections – i.e. the good bits. He wants to remove the aspects of Europe that benefit our members. He wants a ‘Bosses’ Europe’ – a single market that functions only in the interests of business and the wealthy. The worry is that many current European national leaders might support this agenda.

Cameron hopes to be able to put an ‘in / out’ referendum to the British public where both options are unpalatable for us. Membership of a Bosses’ Europe, or isolation.

We need to seek to influence the policy direction at European level through our links with international organisations such as the ETUC and Public Services International, and with other unions in Europe. We need to be part of the Europe-wide struggle against austerity.

And at national level, we need to build support in the UK for the regulations that Cameron is seeking to remove. We need labour market regulation and environmental regulation, whether or not we are members of the European Union.