Why we’d find it difficult repeating “Better Together for Europe”
We’re being asked quite a lot if the trade union movement would join a broad-based campaign to stay in the European Union, working with employers, political parties and others. The example of the Better Together campaign in Scotland is regularly cited – but to be honest, as often by those opposing a ‘united front’ as supporting it. Whilst some people are obviously already on the campaign trail – either die-hard Europhobes determined to campaign for Brexit whatever the result of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation strategy or lifelong Europhiles who are committed to support continued membership whatever shape the European Union has – most unions are waiting to see what the actual vote will be about.
Of course, there’s a lot to be getting on with before the EU referendum campaign starts. The TUC is concentrating its work on the Referendum Bill on arguing for the broadest possible franchise. We believe that on a vote as crucial to Britain’s future as this, votes at 16 makes more sense than ever. As the Scottish referendum last autumn demonstrated, young people in particular have a stake in the future of the country. We favour votes for British citizens living abroad – however long they’ve been away. But we also believe that anyone living and paying taxes in Britain – including the Commonwealth citizens who would have a vote under the Government’s plans but also the EU citizens who aren’t from Ireland, Gibraltar, Malta or Cyprus (included in the Government’s proposals) – should have a say in a decision that fundamentally affects their future. We don’t understand why the franchise should be more dependent on the composition of the British Empire than on our more modern affiliation with the rest of Europe.
And then there’s the renegotiation itself. This month has seen employers and Conservatives break cover on the issue of workers’ rights. We’ve been saying for months that Cameron was likely to push for restrictions on those rights, and we have often been attacked for scaremongering. We know what employers and politicians are asking for in private, and we know that the suggestions that Britain is ‘burdened’ by social Europe only make sense if you are counting rights like paid holidays, or equal treatment for part-time and temporary workers. Well, this week Cameron admitted at Prime Ministers’ Questions that he was indeed looking for less social Europe, although he still won’t come clean about precisely which rights he finds so “unacceptable.” And sadly, a lot of employers are on the make, hoping to benefit from lower social standards, even if they’re not demanding them (and some clearly are.)
We think that the Government’s migration agenda is likely to make things worse for working people too, although we know there are issues that need to be addressed about undercutting, exploitation and stretched public services and housing; as well as the brain drain of skilled workers leaving Eastern European countries and, increasingly, those hit hardest by austerity such as Greece, Spain and Ireland.
In the longer term, we still have to make the case for a better Europe, a Europe that works not just for Britain but for working people across the EU. Austerity is still holding the European economy back, and workers’ wages down, and we need to give more prominence to measures like the ETUC’s NewPath4Europe sustainable investment plan.
In the current climate, therefore, where our priority has to be to defend the workers’ rights that we’ve won over the years through the European Union, it would be difficult for us to work closely with precisely the people who are seeking to take away or water down those rights, or introduce a moratorium on future employment rights. Our polling tells us that if British electors think their rights are being taken away from them by the Government, they would be less likely to vote to stay in, and that means defending those rights has to be top of our agenda.
But there is also one other reason why we’re not attracted to the Better Together format. The European Union – for various reasons, not all of them fair – is seen as an elite project. If political, business and union leaders present a single face to the electorate, especially if they have to paper over the divisions that exist, then we believe the electorate would be put off – as they were in Sweden during their referendum on whether to join the Eurozone. We think that people are more likely to respond positively to grassroots or community leaders – in our case shop stewards and union activists – arguing whatever case makes sense to them on the basis of the eventual outcome of the negotiations. Unlike General Elections, referendums have to be led by the people who are making the choice.
So we will – at least for the foreseeable future – be running our own trade union campaign for workers’ rights and for a Europe that works for everyone, not just for business.