We need a Europe that works for Britain
From today until Sunday the whole of Europe will go to the polls to elect the members of the European Parliament. There has been a steady decline in voter turnout since elections were first held in 1979 and turnout in the UK has historically been one of the lowest in the EU.
Yet this remains the world’s biggest transnational election, with over 350m people eligible to vote in 28 countries for the only directly elected institution in Europe. It would seem a wasted opportunity if people were to decide not to vote and then complained that Europe did not represent them or their interests.
The EU is a contentious issue in the UK and will remain so this election, up to and beyond next year’s general election.
But despite Europe being talked about more, it is surprising how few do so with knowledge. This study dates back to 2006 and shows that over 50% of respondents admitted to knowing very little about the EU. Things haven’t changed much according to one of the European Commission’s vice presidents, Vivianne Reding.
With this in mind, last September the TUC successfully applied for a grant from the European Commission to manage a project called ‘A Europe that works for Britain’ (a title that predates Ed Balls’ phrase “EU must be made to work better for Britain.”). The project intended to raise awareness and debate European questions, both in light of the European election but also with a view to a potential referendum.
The TUC has run a series of events for union reps, members and activists across the regions, which have focused on the benefits deriving from EU membership, on migration, on the economy, trade and much more.
Many participants were concerned that migration was the focus of attention, rather than the economy. One event in particular (South West) explored ways of countering xenophobic rhetoric through a positive message on the benefits of migration but also highlighting that scaremongering let rogue employers and gangmasters exploiting migrant workers off the hook. The only answer to this is to protect wages and conditions from being undercut, and to strengthen worker protection and take full advantage of the protections and rights offered by the EU.
The theme of employment rights in particular was covered by Professor Sonia McKay at the London event who presented a report – commissioned by the TUC – on EU derived rights. She explained that, contrary to the myth of gold plating of EU directives, the UK always chooses the lowest standard of application, with only Latvia faring worse. As a result, she concluded, workers in the UK are less protected and would likely remain so even in case of withdrawal from the EU since there has been no indication so far that EU rights would be replaced by higher national standards.
Others (North East) were interested in countering more generally the propaganda of those parties that were exploiting public dissatisfaction with mainstream parties. In this respect, some felt that increasing turnout was the key to containing extremism, and that widely publicising the possibility of postal vote in workplaces would help get the vote out.
Another popular theme, particularly in Yorkshire and the Humber, was the relation between trade and jobs which is extensively covered in a study co-sponsored by the TUC. This shows that one in seven British jobs already depend on trade with the rest of the EU, and these four million jobs tend to be more highly skilled and better paid than most.
This is only a sample of the issues that have emerged in discussion with trade union activists and workers but if you too are concerned about these issues, there is only one thing to do: go out and vote. Euro elections are based on proportional representation, so every vote counts.