“Osborne to cut paid holidays to boost growth.”
It’s not too difficult to imagine that headline, given the current government. They have already proposed to help employers to sack workers, made it harder to take employers to tribunal and threatened maternity leave. So what’s stopping them going further?
The answer, of course, is an EU law. Though many workers are still unaware of it, many of our rights at work, including our right to paid holiday, are guaranteed by laws at EU level. So it’s not really very surprising that Cameron has targeted this area for a “repatriation of powers,” as he puts it. The rhetoric is all about national sovereignty; the intentions are all economic.
David Cameron and George Osborne have made it clear they think the best way to grow the economy is to drive down standards and undercut our neighbours. They want to see a Europe of competition, made up of small, open economies, subject to the whims of globalisation. In Cameron’s Europe, governments are reluctant to raise social or environmental standards, fearing they will lose out in the great race for international capital. It’s a race to the bottom. The Prime Minister wants to keep the EU rules which protect the single market, but remove the ones which protect people.
That is exactly the kind of Europe that the EU’s social laws are meant to prevent. They have created a Europe of solidarity. This Europe has an economy big enough and self-reliant enough to stand up to globalisation – as long as it cooperates to set common social and environment standards. It can achieve things that states in competition with each other never could: high employment standards, emissions targets, consumer rights, restrictions on bankers’ bonuses, a proposed financial transaction tax. We simply wouldn’t have these policies if we hadn’t been prepared to cooperate in the EU. No wonder Cameron wants those powers back.
Of course, EU laws can be used to liberalise as well as to regulate, and in recent years, the balance has been skewed towards the former. Under a right-wing European Commission, EU Directives have led to privatisation of public services whilst the Commission has promoted austerity as a response to the economic crisis. The EU’s critics on the left are growing louder, selectively citing lists of right-wing policies to show that “the EU” is hopelessly neo-liberal. In response, the pro-European left cites an equally selective list of left-wing EU policies. Repeat.
They are all missing the point. What “the EU” does depends on the politicians we’ve got making the decisions. Last month, for example, when “the EU” brought in new economic legislation amounting to yet more austerity, it was pushed by right-wing Commission president Barroso against the will of Socialist MEPs. When “the EU” failed to agree on a stricter climate change target, it was because Tory MEPs blocked it. More strikingly still, when “the EU” completed the single market in the 1980s, arguably its biggest proponent was Margaret Thatcher. The EU political system is just like the one we’ve got in the UK: when the wrong people are in control of the institutions, the wrong policies are what we get.
So we need to concentrate our energies on gaining influence in the EU institutions, through electoral and non-electoral means. It is true that the EU isn’t perfectly democratic, and we should call for reform. But we can make a huge difference through elections to the European Parliament in 2014, and through our choice of Socialist candidate for the next President of the European Commission.
And we need to direct our criticism. If we always blame “the EU” for decisions made by right-wing politicians, we will get nowhere. The left needs to focus, or Cameron’s Europe could become a reality sooner than we think.