A Europe that works for Britain: reform, repatriation and referendum
On Saturday, TUC President Mohammad Taj opened a SERTUC event on Europe. This is an edited version of his remarks.
Can I take this opportunity to thank you for sacrificing your Saturday morning to debate Europe and what it means to working people like ourselves. Your presence here today means that some people are interested in getting a different perspective from the myths about bendy bananas and other such trivia spread by a biased media.
Talking about myths, why not check out the Class web site? Their new pamphlet, released this week, talks about “why immigration is good for all of us.” It provides a powerful counter-argument to sensationalised reports of the effects of immigration on Britain at a crucial time, when media and political criticism is at its height.
This pamphlet talks about, and shows that:
- immigration is good for the economy;
- the economy is not affected by “benefit tourism”;
- immigration is not responsible for lower wages; and
- migrants do not come to Britain to access our healthcare, or to enjoy the weather!
In January 2013, David Cameron gave his long-awaited speech on Europe. He promised to reform Europe and then put the result of this new deal to the people of Britain, by 2017.
The Prime Minister didn’t specify in what way he wanted to reform Europe until recently, with an article in the Daily Telegraph, where he echoed the Fresh Start Project of predominantly Tory eurosceptics, which lists employment rights as the main target of this renegotiation, namely the working time and temporary agency workers directives.
Given this, the union movement would be forgiven for suspecting that all the government is seeking to do is to obtain ever more opt-outs from EU employment protection. And if the government were to succeed in securing these opt-outs, workers based in the UK would become second class EU citizens with less rights than their neighbours across the Channel.
Whether his pledge to a referendum was to pacify the eurosceptics in his party or whether he did it to steal UKIP’s thunder, no one will ever know. But what we do know is that, whatever the reason, it is not in the interests of working people.
So what is a worker to make of all this talk about ? Very little, is the answer, and the TUC strongly opposes any attempt to undermine employment rights and protections.
Indeed it would be a false choice if workers had to opt either for continued membership of an EU but with fewer rights, or leaving the EU altogether with the certain loss of jobs and investment that an exit would entail. And it is questionable whether eurosceptics would ever be pacified with anything less than a total withdrawal.
Workers’ rights to health and safety; to paid holidays and rest breaks; to protection against discrimination; to equal pay and equal treatment for part-time, temporary, agency and contracted-out workers are essential elements of a Europe that works for its people.
These protections help insulate vulnerable and insecure workers across Europe from the effects of globalisation and recession. They are supported by trade unions in the UK and across Europe. They are at risk and they need to be defended and strengthened, otherwise support for the European Union among voters and trade unions, which was never unconditional, will fall even further.
Another concern of the TUC when it comes to the European, and also the forthcoming national, elections are those far-right and xenophobic parties which have risen on the back of austerity politics, making migrant workers and other vulnerable groups the scapegoats for Europe’s ills instead of targeting exploitative employers and tax avoiders. The TUC believes that these parties don’t have anything to offer to working people except a culture of fear.
In fact the best we can do against these parties is to increase voter turnout in the European elections, which has traditionally been very low in the UK and has decreased since the first elections were held. In 2009, turnout in the UK was the lowest in Europe. 29% in Yorkshire and North West which allowed the election of two BNP MEPs.
I don’t accept those who talk about a democratic deficit and then decide not to vote for the only directly accountable European institution, the European Parliament. Our parents and generations before them fought for such democratic rights and it is important to make use of them.
Only this way we can exercise our power as citizens of Europe. Only by playing the game, not by shouting from the sidelines, can you score goals.
Whatever decision any future government may take on the issue of a referendum after the next General Election the TUC will call for an informed, balanced debate, not dominated by media and right-wing, xenophobic views. And we have started this debate already by organising regional events like this one today to raise awareness of the issues at stake.
The most important priority in the run up to the European elections must be to campaign with unions across Europe and build popular support for a people’s Europe:
- opposing austerity and attacks on public services;
- demanding action on jobs-led growth – through investment in infrastructure and housing;
- fairer pay and progressive taxation; and
- protecting and extending rights at work.
This is our reform agenda for Europe: use your vote in May to support it.
The SERTUC event was part of a TUC project funded by the European Commission.