Theresa May signs the Article 50 letter. Photo: Christopher Furlong - WPA Pool/Getty Images
#Article50: the union response is all about good jobs & rights at work
So much has already been written about the triggering of Article 50, firing the starting gun on two years of negotiations about leaving the European Union. And it was only yesterday. For trade unions, it still seems strange that a Conservative Prime Minister should tell the House if Commons that she is committed to protecting and enhancing working people’s rights as she did yesterday. But what’s the real agenda for unions and working people in what appears to be merely an act of political theatre?
Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s ambassador to the EU (known as UKREP) turned messenger boy to take a letter all the way across the Schumann roundabout to President Tusk’s office (having received it by hand from a civil servant travelling with a guard on the Eurostar from London that morning.) That six page letter is one of the politest ‘Dear John’ missives of all time, and certainly in the bitter recent history of EU-UK relations. But it is about much more than the process of the Brexit negotiations.
I did a quick analysis of the letter for Left Foot Forward which stressed that the warm words would not be enough to secure a good deal for British workers, but of course workers in the rest of Europe also have an interest. Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, has expressed the very serious concerns of Irish workers north and south of the border, and in the Irish Times yesterday she stressed the need for the Irish Government to take steps to address the huge impact Brexit would have on the Irish economy. That will be needed in the UK too, whatever the outcome of the negotiations – such as a real industrial strategy, a programme of housebuilding, investment in skills, schools, hospitals and care.
Europe’s top trade unionist Luca Visentini, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, has set out the steps that the European Parliament (due to vote next Tuesday) and the European Commission (which will be given its negotiating guidance by the remaining 27 EU governments at a summit at the end of next month) need to take to respond to Theresa May’s Article 50 letter, stressing the need not just for an urgent right to remain for the EU citizens living and working in the UK and vice versa, but for a social and economic agreement between the EU and UK which preserves workers’ consumers’ and environmental rights to prevent a race to the bottom on social standards rather than a traditional free trade agreeement. Frances O’Grady echoed these objectives in Social Europe, and called for a tariff-free, burden-free frictionless trade deal to protect decent jobs and good wages (ideally through continued membership of the single market, despite Theresa May ruling that out – so far…)
Above all, we’ve been keen to stress two things about the negotiations.
First, that getting no deal would be the worst option possible: the PM’s letter backed off the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ rhetoric of recent weeks, recognising that defaulting to WTO rules would be bad for both the EU and the UK, and that hard work should be done to avoid that.
And second, that it would be better to take the time to get a good deal: the PM still says that two years will be enough to manage the hugely complex process of resetting 40 years of EU membership, but there is a growing realisation that, if we are to make a success of the negotiations (something that the TUC and unions must be committed to for our members’ sakes, even if we didn’t want to leave the EU in the first place), it will take time.
We’re in for a long haul.