Social Europe: life raft or life support?
I spoke this afternoon at the Fabian Society conference on “Social Europe: worth fighting for?” on a panel addressing trade union attitudes to Europe. This is an edited version of what I said.
Have you heard the news from Athens? Or Madrid? Youth unemployment, not good in countries like the UK, is reaching catastrophic levels in Greece and Spain. Pretty much every other young adult is unemployed, and it’s getting worse. The solution proposed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF isn’t solidarity or a helping hand. It’s more cuts, higher taxes on the poor, fewer rights at work. And more and more trade unionists are asking: is this what Europe is for?
I’d argue that social Europe could be the way for Europe to thrive, rather than just survive – a life raft rather than life support.
British unions were always sceptical of the Common Market. Like much of the
labour movement, we spent the 70s arguing for withdrawal, and only the Delors agenda marrying social rights with the single market, along with a dose of anti-unionism from the then Thatcher Government, turned the TUC into a pro-European movement.
Yesterday, the FT’s Philip Stephens argued that there are two ways to look at the concept of European solidarity: transactional and transformational. That’s just as true of social Europe.
The transactional argument is about what’s in it for us: social rights in return for a free market. As trade unionists who live and die by negotiating improvements in people’s lives, that shouldn’t be dismissed. In times of economic hardship, that transactional approach is likely to have less to offer.
There are still bargains to be struck, of course. At the start of the global economic crisis, German unions were able to agree short-time working agreements with employers with government support, that reduced the impact of the crisis on jobs, and positioned the economy to bounce back quicker.
But such deals are defensive rather than progressive, and if the balance sheet shows more losses than gains, worker and union support for Europe will ebb away. That’s happening now, as the ETUC’s unanimous rejection of the new treaty demonstrates.
It’s therefore time to look for a transformational social dimension: the case that the left needs to make is that social Europe can make Europe a better, fairer place to live and work. Emma Reynolds outlined one particular element of that in her opening speech, with her emphasis on training, although no one should assume that Europe’s economic problems are the result of deficient skill levels.
Some of the stronger transformational issues we should be addressing relate to fairness, both domestically and trans-nationally. Domestically, we need to restore a greater equality of outcome from wages – partly through progressive taxation, including a financial transactions tax, and partly through rebuilding labour market institutions like collective bargaining.
Trans-nationally, we need to return to what used to be part of the mission of the European Union: creating greater equality between poorer and richer economies which means addressing the imbalances between creditor and debtor, or surplus and deficit countries. In the last decade, Greece and Spain did move in that direction, but through personal or national borrowing rather than real growth.
These are not easy arguments to make, but in austere times, transactional offers to the electorate seem to be even more difficult to sell. A transformational approach to Europe, which I think is difficult to imagine without a social dimension, is more likely to offer the EU a way out of the current crisis and back to growth.
It was that transformational message that turned the TUC into euro-enthusiasts rather than pragmatic endorsers, although experience post-Delors diminished that enthusiasm. Pragmatic endorsement, as I say, is brittle, and trade unions are very conscious at present that their members are teetering on the brink of euro-scepticism, and we need a qualitative change in the debate to move on.