From the TUC

Brexit’s implications for the rest of Europe: relaunch social Europe now!

13 Jul 2016, by in International

As I’ve already reported on Stronger Unions, leaders of Europe’s trade union movement visited London on Monday. They were here in part to show solidarity with the British trade union movement post-Brexit. But they were also beginning to grapple with the implications for the rest of Europe, and the statement agreed at the meeting shows how seriously they’re taking it. Bluntly, Brexit has been a wake-up call for Europe’s political and business elite – change course now, or you will face the same backlash as in Britain.

“The future of Europe is at stake. Without reconnecting to its citizens, without a Europe for all people, a Europe of social progress, we will face ever growing anti-European movements and votes. The time for positive change and reform of the European Union is now. The EU must be relaunched with reforms that promote transparency, democracy, equality and decent working and living standards for all – women and men, whether young or older, migrant, mobile or native workers.”

While there are still some who see “more Europe” as the solution to every problem, Europe’s trade union leaders are putting the priority on measures to heal an increasingly fractured continent. Inequality is growing both within and between Europe’s countries and populist politicians are driving wedges into working class communities using nationalism, racism and xenophobia. The EU needs to address these concerns, especially by relaunching the European social model.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the 80s and 90s, membership of the European Union brought rising prosperity for new, poorer entrants like Ireland, Spain and Greece (Britain benefitted too.) Working people were able to share in that growing prosperity because of rights at work and support for collective bargaining. Social dialogue wasn’t just a talking shop – negotiations at European level, including sectorally, brought tangible benefits for working people.

But the change of course towards neoliberalism and fewer restraints on the free market that came with the turn of the century – compounded by the effects of the global financial crisis less than a decade later – has left the European dream in tatters. Austerity and the structural flaws in the Eurozone have had a devastating effect on countries like Greece. Across Europe, migration that was anything but managed has been associated with undercutting in the north and west, and inadequate regional investment in the south and east. People forced to move by underemployment and poverty wages are not exercising the dream of free movement any more than refugees fleeing war and starvation.

The impact on the UK has fuelled the vote to leave the EU, and support for UKIP. But similar impacts were reported across the continent by Europe’s trade union leaders on Monday. The rise of right-wing parties like AfD in Germany, the Front National in France and the Northern League in Italy is based on working class votes. Winning those workers back to more progressive parties will require more than argument (and certainly more than listening, important though that is.)

We need concrete policies that show how Europe can, once again, deliver on the dream of politicians like Jacques Delors – a social Europe that balances market freedoms with social rights, and delivers rising living standards, better jobs, and quality public services and infrastructure (the ETUC’s New Path 4 Europe is being updated, but is still a valid proposal.) We also need resolute action against racism, as the ETUC statement demands:

“Clear signals should be sent that racism and xenophobia will not be tolerated at work or in society; and that racist attacks before and after the referendum, in the UK and in other European countries, have to be stopped. Racism, xenophobia, populism and anti-European sentiments are the result of the economic crisis, of wrong policies put in place to address it, and of politicians accusing the EU of faults they bear the responsibility for.”

There are signs that Europe’s elite are beginning to wake up. The Commission has endorsed a stronger social dialogue (but needs to get employers to deliver their side of the bargain) and the consultation on a new European Pillar of Social Rights is underway, although it needs to be about laws, not exhortation. The IMF and OECD are advocating more public investment (although not necessarily in their plans for individual countries) and even Theresa May is backing workers on the board. The fear is that this is too little too late, and that it won’t be seen through. Clearly, some bosses are still in denial and think they can get away with still more deregulation and liberalisation, including speeding up the ratification and negotiation of trade deals like CETA and TTIP.

But the ETUC statement from Monday shows a way forward, and a better Europe would be better for Britain’s workers whether we are in or out, especially if we can retain trade access and workers’ rights.