Like Cameron and Corbyn, I too was in Brussels this week. The STUC delegation escaped for Scotland just as the street barriers were going up on Friday lunchtime and the media began setting up satellites and long lenses for through-the-night shots of European leaders entering and leaving the all night and all day session of the European council on Cameron’s compromise deal.
Last time I was in Brussels, some five or six years ago, the issues for trade unionists were clear. Lisbon threatening greater competition and labour market flexibility against the decline social European gains.From the soft partnerships arrangements between employers and unions through European works councils , to TUPE protections, working time and health and safety directives, our concerns at that time were an erosion of these protections.
We also looked closely at the services directive, paving the way for competition amongst public services and the posted workers directive in which two tier workforces emerge, and workers rights are undermined when posted workers can be paid the minimum form their country of origin rather than the host country. The court of justice ruling on the free movement of labour had also undermined collective action by workers to protect local terms, conditions and pay levels. Our conclusions in the early days of the financial crash were that things were getting worse.
That was before threat of TTIP and the Troika undermining the democratic will of the people of Greece to impose conditions that undermine public services, and it was also before Junker and the 2014 Euro election in which the European Parliament swung significantly to the right. It was also before we saw the realisation of the Agency Workers directive that many trade unions have put to good use in extending rights to temporary staff.
So once again, our STUC delegation met with Scottish MEPS, officials and experts exerting Scotland’s influence in the Europe, the European TUC and social partners playing a wider role in seeking to extract workers rights and that of mobile labour and refugees from within a more hardened hostile environment. That the ETUC has signed a statement with the US AFL-CIO trade union body demanding that TTIP must act in the interest of protecting workers rights, public services and collective bargaining in both countries, seems positive if you believe that TTIP can be reformed, but perhaps misses the point.
Brexit or Bremain is on everyone’s tongue in Brussels. Now that the deal is done, it is over to us in our referendum on whether the future of the U.K. remains in or out of the EU. The EU will continue without us.
On the eve of the deal, there was no doubt amongst anyone we met that Cameron would get his deal, but their concerns were all, focussed on greater uncertainties. The consequences of coming out of Europe is unprecedented, as no nation state has left, but it is reminiscent of the “what-ifs”, and “not sures” we chewed over in the Scottish independence debate. We met Scottish MEPS who couldn’t say whether they might be allowed to serve their full term of elected office should we vote to leave. Although all expected that it would take several years to unravel us from the ties of EU membership.
I attended a breakfast at the European Parliament on Thursday morning, hosted by English Green MEP Jean Lambart. The focus of the discussion was on European workers mobility. Speaker after speaker from UK, Austria, Spain, Germany, Netherlands and Ireland referred to Britain’s double bluff. Cameron’s concerns over the cost of child benefit for EU mobile workers in the UK is massively outstripped by the healthcare costs met by Spain for the aging British ex-pat community.
The big issue for me? Greece being shafted by the anti-democratic European capitalist interests and widespread austerity undermining the poorest and the most vulnerable across the continent. In the face of this, there has been a welcome left realignment and resurgence in Greece, Spain, Portugal – perhaps signs of changing times. Of course, we must never underestimate the encroaching threat of the far right, particularly in France. TTIP and CESA fundamentally undermine public services ability to function, yet trade deals whether . We also have now an escalated refugee crisis as desperate Syrians are daily risking their lives in over-flowing boats to flee to Europe. And of course, the British referendum on EU membership is upon us.
In the context of all the factors discussed here, the left is correctly clearly Europe sceptic. However, the debate on our future in and out of Europe is not being platformed or by any means considered on Left terms. The right wing Tory majority and the rapidly arriving referendum is heading for a brutish, nasty and short lived campaign that will be conducted on the right. Farage v Cameron.
In these objective conditions, the Left arguing to leave must confront the clear consideration of whether this is the correct moment to leave. Of course, I understand those in the the Left for whom leaving Europe in itself is only a transitional process towards building a greater socialist society. Similar arguments were made for supporting Independence for Scotland. Perhaps, if we already had a Corbyn Left government, or were close to its realisation, the argument to leave the bosses club would have more resonance. Corbyn himself has come out in favour of staying in the EU.
Withdrawing from Europe whilst we are in the grasp of a right wing Tory UK government simply does not feel like a force for progress. Cameron and his cronies will simply make their own TTIP arrangements with the US, and will remove any last layers of protections and rights for workers that Europe affords us, and will cut us off from class solidarity and social and humanitarian movements that is spreading across Europe in repsonse to such despair. I shudder to think what their plans might be for asylum seekers and refugees.
I am not sure how many have a shared concern with me on this, but I find myself increasingly thinking “not sure” or even “not yet”. Hopefully there is time to debate the alternatives.