From the TUC

Are European unions and progressive politicians all in it together?

15 Nov 2011, by in International

Europe has forced its way back onto the centre stage of political debate, whether it’s the eurozone crisis or the Conservative sceptics’ revolt in Parliament. Ministers are beginning to shift the blame for British economic woes from the previous Labour Government to the Eurozone, even though they are categorically wrong to do so, as my colleague Richard Exell has pointed out.

Across southern Europe, unions are at odds with Government austerity packages. In Greece, unions are out on the streets. Union demonstrations in Italy have been frequent this year. And the two confederations in Portugal – so often at odds – are uniting in a general strike on 24 November, just six days before British public sector unions strike over pensions.

But as the Eurosceptic revolt has shown, Europe is particularly difficult to address in Britain, and Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has had to tread a fine line between street fighting partisanship and intellectual rigour in the national interest. He’s capable of both, but as his recent speech to Baltic State ambassadors shows, not always at the same time. 

At domestic and European level, however, the union approach has to be focused on what’s good for working people, not the federalism and scepticism which are no longer appropriate to current challenges.

Douglas put it rather well in his speech, when he said:

If this government were to scrap the social chapter, I think many people would see it as an attempt, not to limit the rights of Brussels, but to limit the rights of working people in Britain.

That’s how trade unions should look at every proposal for new institutions and structures in Europe: not whether they are part of ‘an ever closer union’, or evidence of a ‘two speed Europe’, neither of which are frankly of much intrinsic interest to most. But whether they are good or bad for working people. Current British government policy seems to be twin track at least – more consolidation within the eurozone, but with Britain staying out – with stronger fiscal discipline and even new constitutional requirements to balance budgets. But all of this is part of the same narrative that they are applying to the UK – for fiscal discipline, read austerity; and elected politicians – who might be swayed by demonstrations and the disproportionate impact of austerity on the less well off – displaced by technocrats.

Unions need to construct a narrative which challenges the idea that you can create growth through widespread austerity, or divides workers by nationality or sector. We need to argue for policies which deliver sustainable growth producing decent work, for greater equality and social solidarity. That’s what we’re already doing in the UK, and it’s what the ETUC is doing in Brussels, albeit without sufficient profile. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber will be addressing that when he chairs the ETUC Campaign Committee meeting on Friday, but profile isn’t achieved overnight.

We need progressive politicians to be arguing the same thing, albeit that they need to overcome the challenge of advocating a strategy for Europe at the same time as demonstrating to electorates that they are advocating for their own country. That’s more difficult than it seems because the narrative in the supposedly fiscally prudent northern Europe is not yet aligned with the narrative in the so-called profligate periphery. Although to see how false that dichotomy is, how prudent would it really be for northern banks to lend to the profligate south? We really were all in it together!

It’s difficult for unions too, because although we have deeper wells of international solidarity to draw on than politicians seem to, unions in Austria and Germany, or Scandinavia, face different immediate challenges to those faced by Eastern European unions, or those with sovereign debt crises. Even public sector and private sector workers can be divided, although in Europe as in Ohio, unions have developed strategies to maintain unity over public sector cuts. One of the tasks facing Brendan’s campaign committee will be finding a single narrative that pulls those challenges – or possibly at least the solutions to them – together into a coherent narrative we can use to secure popular support.