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Language to dream of - Workers Should Say Yes to Europe

Denis MacShane on why the proposed constitutional treaty should be endorsed.

Many union members now seem to be disillusioned with Labour’s approach on Europe and there is a growing momentum to oppose Europe’s new constitutional treaty. As a former trade unionist and Minister for Europe, let me make it absolutely clear, saying No in the forthcoming referendum on the treaty would be a mistake for the left, a disaster for trade unions and dangerous for the future of 300 million working age European citizens.

Consider the facts. The EU is the only region in the world in which workers’ rights are embedded as constitutional rights of citizenship.

The first rule of trade union negotiations is to read the small print. The new Treaty declares : ‘The Union shall work for a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress. It shall combat social exclusion and discrimination, and shall promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men and solidarity between generations.’ Of course the European right opposes such values. But why should the European left?

Written into the Treaty is the obligation on both the EU and Member States to support the Charter of Social Rights and ‘set as their objectives the promotion of employment, improved living and working conditions, proper social protection, dialogue between social partners, the development of human resources with a view to lasting high employment and the combating of exclusion.’

Negotiations under the Charter have enshrined as core rights in the workplace annual holidays of at least four weeks, obligatory consultation rights, pension rights for part-time workers, protection for workers in takeovers, anti-discrimination measures which mean gay and lesbian workers gained their first-ever rights.

No other region in the world offers such enforceable treaty rights to its citizens in the workplace. In the United States, the 16 million unionized American workers have employment rights in labour-management contracts. But the 130 million non-unionized US workers do not enjoy the rights membership of the EU confers on all European workers.

In the debate over how to respond to globalisation the new Treaty should be held up as an example with its insistence that workers without work or employees without rights are victims and helots of modern capitalism instead of players in a social market economy they can help shape.

It is true that no-one in Brussels is seeking to tell unions or companies how to do their business inside their own countries. In Germany, nearly 4 million workers who have Beamter status as public sector workers are banned under the German constitution from going on strike. Brussels cannot tell Berlin to overturn the German constitution and laws to allow all state employees to go on strike – a right most enjoy in Britain and France.

Le Monde reported recently that 95 per cent of French employees in the private sector refused to join a trade union. There is nothing in the new Treaty that can make French workers join a union if they do not want to. In Sweden, 85 per cent of all workers voluntarily join unions. They have chosen a consensual approach to defend the Swedish economy under globalisation. In the past, Swedish unions refused to join the campaign for a 35 hour week. It is not possible to create a social Europe a la Procrustes. There is a Swedish version of social Europe, a German version and the specific form of trade union organisation in each nation cannot be changed.

In Britain, Labour has passed a law making trade union recognition mandatory where employees want it. Britain’s contribution to social Europe is to return work to the working class. Britain has a SMIC of €7.50 an hour and has reduced working time from the high level inherited from previous right-wing government. Quoting EU Commission statistics, Die Welt reported in July that of the 15 member states in the pre-enlargement EU ten had longer working weeks than the UK.

There are problems in the British labour market but Britain’s trade union membership has remained stable at around 7.5 million members since Tony Blair became prime minister. This compares with Germany where the DGB, the German trade union confederation lost 1,000 members for every working day in 2003. The British version of social Europe is far from perfect but it has supported trade union membership. In the Foreign Office under Labour ministers work constructively with British trade unions to promote labour rights internationally. We want to see our friends in East Europe increase salaries and social rights. That is a better policy for Europe and the world than protectionism.

Social Europe’s biggest challenge is to reduce mass unemployment and promote growth. Unemployment in the major Eurozone economies remains high. Last year the Eurozone economies grew by 1.3 per cent. The United States grew by 4.8 per cent

The challenge for progressive politics in Europe is to get growth going across all 25 member states. European nations cannot afford poor neighbours. Europe’s new constitutional treaty belongs neither to the left nor the right any more than the French or American constitutions, in themselves, define the political or social choices of France and the United States. It is up to the left in Europe to develop a new agenda to achieve full employment and social protection. Let the conservatives, isolationists, souverainistes, and populists say No. The new constitutional treaty contains language for 450 million citizens which workers elsewhere on the planet can only dream of. The left should say Yes to Europe.

Denis MacShane is Minister for Europe and Labour MP for Rotherham.