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Repatriation - not about improvement

Frances O'Grady explains why workplace rights are at the heart of what makes the EU important.

David Cameron's January speech on Europe has now faded in the opinion polls. It may have been his intention all along, to kick the issue of Europe down the road by pacifying his europhobic back benchers. But trade unionists will remember - and beware - his declared intention to repatriate control over workers' rights from the EU to the UK. We don't think he wants them back so he can improve them!

Cameron's record on workplace rights has been universally hostile whether they derive from Brussels or Westminster. The toxic Beecroft proposals to scrap great swathes of workplace rights have been beaten back by union campaigning, but we can't be complacent. The attack on the Agricultural Wages Board removes the last vestige of a wages safety net originally erected by Winston Churchill, and the removal of strict liability from health and safety law means that injury victims seeking fair and just compensation will have to prove negligence even when their employers have blatantly broken the law.

The one area of employment law the Conservatives have been unable to touch has been those rights established across the European Union, such as the Working Time Directive. It's worth remembering what life was like before that law gave workers the right to paid holidays for the first time (sometimes underpinning entitlements unions had negotiated, but giving millions of workers their first paid holidays at all.) Exhausted junior doctors making fatal errors in surgery, truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel, included the longest working hours in Europe, often unpaid.

European workplace rights are among the most popular aspects of the EU, and without them, workers and unions would have little interest in defending UK membership. Indeed, when the EU was just a common market, we were opposed to it. As Commission President Jacques Delors said, "you cannot fall in love with the single market."

For a decade or more, unions have been on the back foot over Europe and inequality has grown, but now David Cameron's transparent attempt to take away our rights has given us the space to advance the case for a different, better, fairer Europe.

We need to challenge the direction European governments, so many of them austerity fetishists like our own, are forcing us down.

For a start, Europe's workers need a wage rise. Workers should have shared the benefits of the increases in productivity that have occurred in the last 30 years. We need to close the gap and redistribute the vast amounts that the 1% have stuffed into their own wallets. Progressive taxation and new measures like the Robin Hood Tax could turn the last three decades of big bonuses and fat salaries into quality public services. Euro-bonds, backed by a European Central Bank given the task of delivering full employment, could be used to unlock massive corporate war chests for spending on green infrastructure investment, R&D and skills training.

Growing wages for the squeezed middle, together with minimum and living wages, could create internal demand - absent since the global financial crisis began, which lead to years of stalled growth and double-dip recession - without having to resort to risky loans and massive personal debt. We need to halt and reverse a generation of growing inequality across Europe (even the Scandinavian economies are not immune), heeding the warnings from the IMF and the OECD - of all people - that inequality is bad for growth.

Above all, workers need a say in the way the European and British economies develop, and how their firms plan for the future. In the UK that means considering setting up new institutions like modernised wages councils and how to expand collective bargaining - the best defence workers have against corporate greed.

With Cameron's Conservatives seeking to use the continuing economic crisis to seek further concessions on wages, working conditions and pension ages, this may seem an ambitious agenda. But it is when things look grimmest that we need to do our most radical thinking.

Like William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes, who used the darkest days of the Second World War to plan a better global economy and the welfare state, we need to enthuse our movement and our allies with a vision of a better life.