Elected leaders of the European Trade Union Confederation. Photo: ETUC
Europe’s response to Article 50: what unions want
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 and fire the starting pistol on negotiations to leave the European Union. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has already adopted a statement setting out what unions here and in the rest of Europe want the EU to do once that happens.
Theresa May’s letter may be accompanied by a white paper on the negotiating strategy and the next steps. Trade unions have been campaigning to stop British working people’s rights falling behind those in the rest of Europe, and frictionless access to Europe for our exports: goods and services. Both would best be secured by staying in the single market.
Once the UK government’s letter has been received, the 27 other EU governments will respond, initially with ‘draft guidance’ for the European Commission, telling the Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier what the rest of Europe’s negotiating objectives will be. The European Parliament will chip in with its views, probably before Easter, and then the 27 EU governments will adopt the final guidance at a summit towards the end of April. The ETUC statement has been delivered to Mr Barnier, as well as to the Presidents of the EU institutions and the European Parliament’s Brexit, MEP Guy Verhofstadt.
The TUC (and our nearest neighbours in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions) helped draft the statement, so it tackles all our issues. But it also meets the needs of workers around the rest of Europe. Although it stresses that membership of the single market and the customs union, with disputes resolved by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), would be the best solution, it argues that a comprehensive social and economic agreement that protects jobs, living standards and workers’ rights is vital.
The statement calls for trade unions to be involved in the negotiations, and urges that the negotiations be conducted with ‘the greatest possible degree of openness’ and ‘a presumption of transparency unless a strong case for confidentiality can be shown.’ Impact assessments would be a good way to ensure that working people’s interests are being delivered by whatever is negotiated.
European trade unions are calling for a level playing field of rights across Europe after Brexit. That means British working people keeping all their current rights through a ‘non-regression clause’, but also any new rights that the EU creates, so that British workers don’t fall behind working people in the rest of Europe. Preventing working people in Britain becoming second-class citizens would also help protect workers in the rest of Europe from being undercut.
The right to remain for EU citizens living and working in the UK, and UK citizens in the rest of the EU, is another key area covered by the statement. But people should not be used as bargaining chips – the ETUC has already called on the UK and other governments to grant these rights unilaterally as soon as possible.
Finally, the ETUC statement recognises that negotiating a new relationship might take longer than two years, and calls for a transitional period to allow that to happen, with the current arrangements over workplace rights, single market membership and the role of the ECJ in place until the final deal is implemented.
ETUC general secretary Luca Visentini has written this weekend in EU online journal Euractiv:
“It is difficult to be pragmatic about such a sad day for Europe, but we owe it to the working people we represent to make sure the risks of Brexit are minimised and mitigated. I want the EU to signal that, if the British people reach a different conclusion, they will be welcomed back into the European Union. But I know this is unlikely, and we must plan for the alternative, making sure that we get the best Brexit possible, for people in every corner of Europe.”