It’s time to raise our voices in defence of social Europe

16th January, 2013 11:58 am

Just before New Year, we were driving back to Northumberland after seeing friends in Edinburgh and came over Carter Bar on the Scottish/English border in a howling gale. As usual we stopped to look back towards the Cheviots and south towards home, a good opportunity to break up the journey. This time, I took the time to read the plaque under the beacon at the border, which was erected to celebrate the launch of the European single market in 1992. With all the political and media discussion about Britain’s future relationship with the EU, it was a poignant moment on a windswept moor to realise the enthusiasm felt 20 years ago.

It also reminded me how quickly we have taken for granted the benefits of EU membership, whether it’s the investment in our infrastructure from EU structural funds, especially in the North-East, the jobs created through inward investment to ensure access to the single market (whether at Nissan in Sunderland, SSI at Redcar or the much anticipated jobs at Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe), or the indirect jobs in supply chains and local economies. The dream of those visionary negotiators in the 1940s, including Churchill, was that economic integration would ensure that a Continent haunted by war would stop sacrificing its sons and daughters and build a peaceful prosperity. Neither my parents’ generation nor mine has been conscripted, which is testament enough with or without the Nobel Peace Prize.

The beacon at Carter Bar also reminds us that 1992 marked the launch of the European Social Chapter, the creation of pan-European social rights to maternity and paternity leave, equal treatment in the workplace for atypical workers, anti-discrimination and equality rights, rights to worker information, consultation and participation, and the further development of health and safety protection. A set of rights and principles recognising that peaceful economic prosperity can only come if accompanied by social justice. A set of rights extended to British workers by the new Labour government in 1997. A set of rights and principles that promised that competition between countries should be based on fair competition and aimed at improving living and working conditions. A set of rights and principles that are today under direct attack from the current UK government under the guise that they hinder growth.

Twenty years on from the lighting of the Carter Bar beacon, the EU is at a crucial crossroads in its development. At the beginning of January, the IMF reiterated the destructive nature of simultaneous austerity measures applied throughout the Continent (including the UK), which is stripping the life out of our economy at a faster rate than previously recognised. Savage cuts in welfare states and wages are creating increasing levels of insecurity in society. While rising inequalities between rich and poor, precarious work and underemployment are being actively promoted through radical labour market deregulation. Many of Europe’s governments appear to have signed up to a collective suicide pact. This austerity is providing a feeding ground for xenophobia and the rise of populist attacks on the weakest in society: migrants, the unemployed, the disabled, and the poor more generally. It is undermining the very foundations of the post-war peaceful prosperity enjoyed in Europe. No one should be in any doubt that the Conservatives are at the fore-front of this attack at home and in the European Parliament. That’s more clear than ever now that the anti-EU grouping Fresh Start have published their ‘manifesto’, with a foreword from William Hague.

Top of their agenda in the ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s membership of the EU proposed by Cameron is the withdrawal from the social rights enshrined in 1992.

With Cameron due to speak in one or other location on Friday, the debate is not just about whether Britain should be in or out of the EU, this crisis is being used to try to rewrite and take basic rights away from British citizens at a time when they are most needed.

A year before the next European Parliament elections, it falls to those of us who hold workers’ rights and vital investment in our regions dear to make the case for their defence ring louder. As Nye Bevan said of the NHS, the rights guaranteed by the European Social Chapter “will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for [them]”.

Judith Kirton-Darling is Confederal Secretary of the European TUC and is a member of Hexham CLP

  • As long as you can credit the EU solely with these developments, with no help from any UK government, you are absolutely right. My view is than UK governments have contributed towards these changes.

  • Luke Hildyard

    Good article.

    “the debate is not just about whether Britain should be in or out of the EU, this crisis is being used to try to rewrite and take basic rights away from British citizens at a time when they are most needed”

    Completely agree. When people say they want to repatriate social/employment legislation, a race to the bottom on workers right is really what they are after. I wish Labour were doing more to expose this.

  • The left needs to learn to be more critical of the EU. Labour seems to be happy ignoring the unpopular aspects of Europe and defending what most see as a pretty unsatisfactory system simply because the right identifies as eurosceptic. Opposition for the sake of it is pointless: if the left wants to defend the social advances secured by the EU then they should focus on these whilst simultaneously attacking the democratic deficit and the right wing agenda at the heart of the current EU. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending that the EU is a wonderful leftwing institution that is beyond criticism will be unpopular with the public and plays into the hands of UKIP nutters who think that the ‘EUSSR’ is some sort of communist plot.

    Why do we have to accept the neoliberalism and half the nonsense that comes out of the European Commission as a price that we have to pay for the Social Chapter?

    • Alex-You’re right the EU are not left wing institutions it is a consenual project but Cameron is making sure it will be less so by removing Britain from the social chapter. This is part of the Tory neo-liberal project which did not come from Brussels but Thatcher’s union laws and deregulation of labour.

      Much of the anger over immigration in working class constiuencies is as a result of the attack on organised labour and collective bargaining to make labour markets a free for all dutch auction. Yes EU membership does prevent the UK from becoming a protectionist planned economy but I don’t see a lot of political support forcing people to buy Leyland Allegros.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    It’s just a shame that all these wonderful things require us to put up with the European Arrest Warrant hauling people to face the vagaries of the Greek or Italian police forces, privatisation of state services and accounts that never get signed off.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    This article blurs two separate issues – membership of the EU and the particular social and economic policies it promotes.

    Would those on the Left still support the EU if it were forcing austerity on the UK? If TUC members were being treated like the Greeks, seeing huge wage cuts and savage cuts to pensions, benefits, services? Cuts that make George Osborne look like Father Christmas.

  • Daniel Speight

    Off the subject of the article, but it seems the new mantra from pro-Europeans is that the uncertainty caused by a promise of a referendum coming in the next parliament would cause economic damage to Britain by leading foreign investment away from this country. Now I’m not sure if that is true, and if it is quite how much damage we are talking, but I am suspicious that it has only just now become the main argument against a referendum.

    I am open on whether it’s best to stay in rather than pull out, but I’m leaning towards continued membership. At the same time I do think that the pro-EU people, including politicians and businessmen, need to make their arguments to British public and referendum would be the ideal way of seeing what the nation actually wants. (I suspect that those pro-EU would win the economic argument and therefore the vote. This would take away the uncertainty for another generation.)

    I still think that EU membership has hurt organized labour severely with its free movement of labour. Mind you the bits that the Tories want to negotiate away are probably some of the best bits.

    • I agree an in/out referendum would be a good way to have an adult debate and clear the air in the short term but we would be back to square one within a few years.

      Following any move a future labour government made towards creating a more social Europe, the UKIP, Tory and far right press voices would be playing the same tune; “this is not what the public voted for,” “Britain just wants a trading relationship,” “meddling Brussels Eurocrats.”

      And bare in mind it took less than a decade for Labour to ignore the results of Wilson’s referendum and called for withdrawel in 1983.
      I’m not an advocate of a European mirror image of the USA but I do not want to see Labour pandering to a reactionary Tory agenda that sees the EU as just a neo-liberal zolverein.

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