Brexit: what about the workers?

Jane Carolan examines the consequences of the neo-liberal EU for workers’ rights

What do you want? Do you favour a Chequers Brexit or a ‘no deal’ deal? Should it be Canada plus or WTO rules? Another choice is another referendum, in the hope that a rerun will produce a different result from 2016. Bombarded by multiple options for a future relationship with Europe, it can be difficult to keep up with the acronyms, never mind critically analysing the politics behind them.

Discussions are curiously clouded by selective amnesia, wiping any memory of debate prior to the referendum when left opposition to the EU was side lined completely. The left critique, however, began with the 1975 referendum. Then, a coalition of the Labour left and unions coalition was the official opposition. Over time the TUC solidly defended ‘Social Europe’ as promoting democracy, egalitarianism and social liberalism while individual union contributions to Congress were critical from the Maastricht Treaty onward. TUC standing orders ensure that statements from the General Council take precedence over motions. Thus, critical motions are passed by vote of Congress but superseded in terms of policy. Motions critiqued the undemocratic and unaccountable nature of EU Institutions, highlighting the critical role of the European Central Bank, and lambasting the neo-liberal economic policy embedded within the EU constitution. Indeed, in taking forward the doctrines of the free market, privatisation and the withdrawal of the state from the economy, British governments has often led the way.

This is not only of historic interest. No re-evaluation of these policies has ever followed, even after the 2007-2008 economic crisis. Across the EU, states weakened by the banking crisis had bailouts and imposed ‘structural adjustment’, meaning privatisation, cuts in wages, pensions, benefits and social provisions. From Ireland to Greece, the prescription ensured destructive economic and social decline. Britain went through the same processes, albeit voluntarily. Larry Elliott (Guardian 19 August 2018) noted: ‘Greece has been a colossal failure. It is a tale of incompetence, of dogma, of needless delay and of the interests of banks being put before the needs of people.’ Few on the Left would doubt Elliott’s analysis could be applied to Britain, and that the EU has been far from a source of protection for workers here. 

Left discussion of trading policies has a highly developed critique of EU trade treaties such as the EU/Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These treaties provide the freedom of capital to operate in every country on its own terms, to penetrate the public sector, and to secure conditions for employment that maximises its own advantage. These treaties negate basic democratic processes by locking in privatisation and making it difficult for governments to regulate in the public interest. Such treaties incorporate the Investor-State Dispute Settlement offering corporations significant rights to sue governments in private international tribunals, essentially being private courts.

Thus advantages of a ‘Canada plus’ deal between the UK and Canada can only be obvious to the Boris Johnson-type Brexiteers. The alternative May ‘Chequers’ proposals continue the current EU prohibitions on state aid and comprehensive public ownership of the utilities. ‘Canada plus’ and Chequers are lose/lose options surely for progressive politics. The least examined argument in relation to the EU has been on workers’ rights, where labour market developments have been influenced by neo-liberal thinking emanating from Britain. Current TUC discussion is focussed on maintaining existing protections from EU directives (on equality etc) and seeks to transpose these and any future EU protections into British law. This ignores most recent initiatives and the direction of travel, where policies are deliberately aimed at reducing the wage setting powers of unions in order to limit collective agreements, increase the scope to undercut national sectoral agreements, and extend the right to participate in collective bargaining to non-union groups. Taken in combination with the Court of Justice of the European Union judgements, the extent to which EU workers’ rights have been eroded and degraded is well documented , as is its centrality to the nature of the European project. Such developments are currently at the centre of a wave of industrial unrest in France.

Austerity Britain needs a genuinely new economic policy that seeks to repair and improve the social and industrial fabric of an increasing divided unequal society .That policy has to break from the neo-liberal model. In Labour’s ‘For the many, not the few’, progressive policies that challenge the EU’s neoliberal principles are offered. This includes plans to secure the rights of unions as proposed in the Institute of Employment Right’s Manifesto for Labour Law. That is the challenge that needs to be prioritised. Only a general election will do that.

Jane Carolan was until recently a Unison NEC member, chairing the union’s Policy Development and Campaigns Committee. She represented the union on the TUC General Council and Executive Committee for a number of years. She is currently working as Scottish coordinator for the Institute of Employment Rights. She works with Radical Options for Scotland and Europe (