Conservative policy still unclear on Europe
The Irish referendum result couldn’t have been timed better to re-open Conservative wounds over Europe, just as their final conference before the election opened. Trade unions are, of course, principally concerned about Conservative policy on European social issues – workers; rights, employment policy, equality, pensions and so on. And the Conservative policy on this seems to be evolving, but it isn’t becoming clearer.
David Cameron knows only too well that Europe pulled the last Conservative government apart – and it wasn’t so much the battle between Europhiles and Eurosceptics (which would have been a walkover for the latter) as between a Government that had to function as an EU Member State and an internal opposition that didn’t care about that.
In opposition, therefore, it’s not surprising that the sceptics have the upper hand. But Cameron needs a way of managing the transition from anti-European insurgency into a Government that can make agreements with other EU Member States.
On employment rights, the Conservative position has changed. They are no longer committed to opting out of the Social Chapter (which wouldn’t really have been possible given the new legal structures since 1997). Instead they favour ‘repatriating’ powers over ’employment and social affairs’ (and also home affairs – although on a range of issues such as immigration, that’s effectively where the UK is at the moment: the Government has to opt in to any specific EU measure, and usually doesn’t).
It’s not clear whether the Conservatives mean that they want to be able to opt out of existing employment and social measures such as rights to paid holidays, health and safety legislation, equal rights for part-time workers and so on, or only from future employment and social legislation. If so, they would have to completely re-write UK health and safety law, as it’s almost all now based on EU directives (most of which Mrs Thatcher accepted and implemented without demur to demonstrate what a ‘good European’ she was.) And if that is the case, then it’s a legitimate question to ask which of these rights the Conservatives would want to tinker with.
If, on the other hand, the Conservatives only want to apply the repatriation of powers to future employment and social legislation, the Conservatives will need to argue what it is about past legislation that is so bad that they don’t want to go through the same process on future issues. The EU process, for example, gives a formal voice to the social partners, for example, and also has to go through a Parliament that – unlike Westminster – actually demonstrates independence in its legislative activities rather than simply following party whips. They would also need to explain how their position differs from the current Labour policy of resisting every new employment right that is proposed.
And finally, the Conservatives need to explain how they would persuade the other 26 Member States to allow them to change the rules of the EU in this way. At the weekend, Cameron seemed to be threatening to call a UK referendum unless he got his way, which would be a high risk strategy potentially opening up the course to leaving the UK. A negotiating strategy, on the other hand, would leave a Cameron Government having to offer reciprocal concessions to 26 other Governments, as Foreign Secretary Miliband argued in the Financial Times on Monday.
So there are still lots of unanswered questions in the Conservatives’ policy on the European social model. Trade unions are unlikely to let them lie.