European Commissioner Olli Rehn delivered a blunt message at a European TUC conference yesterday, namely that the EU is not some kind of ‘à la carte caféteria’ that the UK government can dip in and out of as it chooses.
The central debate at this 40th anniversary conference of the ETUC was about how Europe should develop together, not about whether it has a future at all. That the UK should voluntarily consign its position on Europe to several years of uncertainty was treated with bemusement bordering on incredulity.
The zero sum idea that economic growth and stability can only be achieved on the back of cutting jobs and employment rights was contrasted with a vision of a ‘social Europe’ based on greater income equality and strong public services, where the voices of ordinary working people and their unions count as well as those of big business and government. Hardly revolutionary stuff, but so important in a world still seemingly dominated by the interests of finance and the multinationals.
The role of collective bargaining as a vehicle for growth versus competition driving down wages was explored in some detail. Pump priming economies by channeling money through the banks has been tried and largely failed. Putting money directly into the pockets of people to stimulate consumer demand is an idea whose time has now well and truly come.
All of the main trade union federations in Europe were represented at the conference, some from countries who are clearly weathering the recession betters than others. But with some 80% of EU trade taking place within Europe itself and the potential for social tensions to leapfrog boundaries, no one country can isolate itself from its neighbours – nor does it benefit anyone in the long run to have countries undercutting each other through low wages and low tax regimes. Most of Europe seems to recognise this, except of course for one notable island.
With 40 years under its belt, from the very first gathering in Brussels in 1973, my prediction is that the ETUC will be needed even more in the years ahead as a force for social as well as economic cohesion.