From the TUC

Government’s review of EU powers: no support for repatriation

31 Jul 2014, by in International

Last summer, I blogged about the government’s Balance of Competences Review and the first batch of reports. I concluded then that the reports must have been disappointing for Conservative eurosceptic MPs who were eagerly awaiting irrefutable evidence that powers devolved to Brussels must immediately be repatriated in the national interest. A year has gone by and, almost to the day, history is repeating itself. Last week the government published the penultimate batch of reports. Worthy of note are the reports on employment and social policy and on fundamental rights – possibly the most controversial topics within the review, together with freedom of movement.

Throughout the year, government departments have continued to pore over EU competencies and issued calls for evidence on various subjects. The TUC submitted evidence on asylum and immigration, transport, trade, climate change and energy policy and much more. The TUC has argued that, while there is scope for improvement in certain aspects, in the main there are advantages to pooling sovereignty and work with other EU countries to attain common objectives.

In the review on employment and social policy, the TUC has argued that common rules were essential to ensure a level playing field in the interest of workers. Thus the TUC refuted declarations by the Prime Minister and various Ministers aiming at either diluting existing EU measures in these fields or, worse, ‘repatriating’ these competences – which in our eyes actually means ‘repealing’ protections. Similarly, the TUC considers that fundamental rights and the system under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) have had positive effects for individuals or groups of individuals like unions.

The first report is rather neutral, carefully balancing the interest of companies in reducing admin burdens, and workers’ interests in preserving protections. The report helpfully reminds us that since the social chapter (from which most employment legislation stems) no longer exits as a separate instrument, it is not possible to ‘opt out’ of its provisions.

In a similar vein, the report on fundamental rights states that the UK protocol on the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights appended to the Lisbon Treaty, does not constitute an ‘opt out’ from the Charter, which  does apply to the UK (and the European court has confirmed this.) Also there is overall agreement that the Charter does not create new rights and the report concludes that fundamental rights have had a relatively limited impact in the UK beyond existing human rights protection. So why is Minister Grayling making all this fuss about withdrawing from the ECHR? The last Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, lost his job because he dared speak against this idea.

Eurosceptics will not like either report, but we do! The TUC sees repatriation in particular as both being against the principles underpinning membership of the EU – which is a community of values striving for the improvement of living and working conditions as well as the promotion of social justice and protection – and counterproductive from the point of view of all Member States including the UK. Indeed it would lead to the unravelling of the internal market, which the UK government seems to value above all other elements of EU membership.

Secondly, the trade union movement has supported the process of EU integration, but this support has never been unconditional. Workers will come to reject the European project – and in a sense many have done so at the last European elections – if they can’t be guaranteed that they will be protected from the vagaries of an internal market that risks becoming a race to the bottom. A race which Europe is destined to lose if it seeks to lower its standards, as some would have it, in order to compete with emerging economies.

What has kept workers believing in the EU is the body of rights that have benefited them and their families, and the opportunities that came with freedom of movement. However workers all too often lack equal treatment, and the priority given to the needs of companies over their well-being, has led some to reject the EU. This insecurity, compounded with dangerous populist rhetoric by the far-right and UKIP, has produced unwelcome results at the last European elections. This runs counter to many member states’ interest – especially the UK: blind nationalism and protectionism stand at the opposite of open and integrated markets, on which many of our jobs depend.

Should any future treaty revision seek to alter the grand bargain of an internal market integrating a strong social dimension, thereby continuing to undermining workers’ rights through austerity and further deregulation, the TUC would not hesitate to reject the outcome of such intergovernmental negotiations and mobilise its members and sister organisations across the EU accordingly.

This saga isn’t over yet. The last calls for evidence have just closed and the relevant reports will be published in the autumn, as the review is to conclude at the end of the year. Going by precedent, it is likely that the conclusions would be fairly similar to previous reports – a carefully balanced compromise within the governing Coalition.

I sympathise with those who have argued that this audit of EU powers was always going to be a complete waste of time. However it was important for the TUC to engage and continue to make the case for workers’ rights and we have done exactly that.

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