European unions begin to chip away at austerity
European trade unions’ leader Bernadette Segol this week became the first ETUC General Secretary to address the European Commission (when they all get together they’re called “the College of Commissioners”), and she made the case against austerity, for growth and workers’ rights. Commission President Barroso said after the meeting, where employers were also represented, that “the social dimension of the EMU” (economic and monetary union) “is crucial for its sustainability.”
Unions across Europe are concerned that this is just words – an attempt to deflect our criticisms of the failures of austerity and moderate our demands for a change of course based on higher wages, sustainable investment and stronger workers’ rights. It wouldn’t be the first time that a Commission nearing the end of its term of office and European Parliamentary elections has promised a new dawn for social Europe.
So we know that the battle certainly hasn’t been won. Barroso said after the meeting that “the Commission will soon make proposals aiming to further strengthen the social dimension,” but he couldn’t resist adding “without creating new burdensome procedures.” Nevertheless, a combination of union demands, social unrest and the continued failure of austerity is forcing the Commission – like the IMF – at least to take our criticisms seriously. Hence the invite to the College.
The Commission President and some of his colleagues have been making more and more noises recently about the need for a stronger social dimension to the European Union and EU funding for the modernisation of vocational training systems and increasing the effectiveness of active labour market policies. There are plans for a – fairly weak – youth employment initiative (less than the guarantee unions and socialist parties want); a requirement to provide migrant workers with advice on their rights and benefit entitlements launched last week as Theresa May was touting an inter-governmental commitment against benefit tourism; and, especially, a ‘social road map’ to be discussed at the EU Summit at the end of June.
President Barroso suggested that social partner participation in this College meeting wouldn’t be a one off, and, in an aside that will no doubt be unwelcome in Downing Street, he added that “also very important is the involvement of the social partners at national level. This is key to this process and should be further developed.”
European unions meet next in Troika-afflicted Dublin at the beginning of next month, where we will unveil a build up to the EU Summit, including a mass mobilisation in Athens known as the ‘Alter-summit’ on 7-8 June. European leaders will be subjected to co-ordinated pressure to adopt a social road map worthy of the name, and to abandon their strategy of growth through austerity.
It isn’t a campaign that unions expect to win overnight, and we need to build popular support – and support among our members – which will allow is to secure more electoral victories in key European countries and for the European Parliament next summer.