As the unions debated Europe at the TUC in Brighton this week, they and Jeremy Corbyn seem to agree on one thing: that David Cameron must not have a carte blanche to negotiate away workers’ rights as part of his desired EU reform package ahead of the in-out referendum.
While shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, continues to insist Labour will never call for a ‘no’ vote on the EU, the new Labour leader’s position remains unclear. And leading unions including Unite and the GMB are reportedly threatening to call for their members to vote ‘no’, if Cameron gets any deal from Brussels to water down workers’ rights.
But this is a risky strategy – workers’ rights will not be stronger if the UK ends up outside the EU; it risks being a ‘cut-off-your-nose to spite your face’ strategy.
With the most recent opinion polls showing the gap between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides narrowing, the position of both Labour and the unions is increasingly important in the battle for public opinion. While the Tories have bizarrely called on pro-EU business to ‘shut up’ until later, pro-EU voices on the left need to be heard clearly now, not threatening a ‘no’ campaign.
One irony here is that it was the TUC much more than the Labour Party or Labour government that defended workers’ rights in the EU in the last two decades. New Labour did indeed end the Tories’ opt-out on EU social policy (the ‘social chapter’ as it was called) back in 1998. But they did so with the very clear aim to then limit and obstruct almost all new EU laws in this area.
It was left to the TUC to be a clear British voice arguing in favour of new directives (that did eventually pass despite UK/Blair government opposition) from the information and consultation directive (giving some weak rights to workers in large firms to be consulted in the face of major restructuring) to the temporary agency work directive (giving important rights to temporary workers).
But are the unions right: is Cameron aiming to undermine such positive EU employment laws in the UK, as the Tories successfully did back in the 1990s with their across-the-board opt-out?
The Financial Times reported in August that Cameron had scrapped demands for a new broad opt-out from EU employment laws, but that he was still looking for ways to ensure that the UK’s opt-out from the working time directive (where the individual worker can choose to work more than 48 hours) would continue, and that, relatedly, the Tories also want to weaken European Court judgements that have impacted on rights concerning holiday pay, on-call time, and rest periods (all also covered in the working time directive).
No full-scale opt-out
So the good news is that the Tories are apparently not attempting to return to a full-scale social and employment policy opt-out – nor would they be likely to get one, the 1990s UK opt-out was deeply unpopular in the other member states.
And the unions are surely right to campaign against Cameron attempting to weaken even some of the existing EU rights, as should Labour too. These issues are not at the centre of Cameron’s list of demands for EU reform in the way that the issues of migration and EU freedom of movement are. So pressurising him to drop them, and calling on other member states not to agree to these reforms, can potentially be successful.
But the challenge for the unions is that their threats of campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in the face of any weakening of workers’ rights is a ‘nuclear’ option that does not add up – unless they are anyway opposed to continuing EU membership (in which case surely they should just say so). By staying in the EU, workers will continue to be protected by almost all existing EU social and employment laws, even were Cameron to get any of his demands linked to working time through.
And a Labour government – or any other progressive government in the UK – can easily opt back into any areas that the Tories did succeed in opting-out of, as long as the UK is still an EU member state.
The real attack on workers’ rights would be if the UK left the EU. Then it would be straightforward for the Tory government to repeal other directives protecting workers’ rights – obligations to implement EU laws would cease, and so leaving the EU would worsen not help workers’ rights. And joining the EU again in the future would be hard – it would need a new referendum, and new negotiations with Brussels.
So the unions are surely right to tell Cameron he will make it more difficult for them to make a strong case for the EU, if he weakens workers’ rights. But they are quite wrong to threaten to make the case for exit.
Staying in the EU with most or all existing social and employment laws still applying has to be a better outcome for workers than leaving the EU and finding none of those laws apply any more. The unions are perfectly capable of campaigning for workers’ rights against the Tories, without invoking the nuclear option of ‘Brexit’, yet this is the option that some are threatening.
Despite Cameron’s emphasis – much of it bluster – on his negotiation with EU partners over reforms, the referendum, at the end of the day, is not a vote on what Cameron squeezes out of a reluctant Brussels. It is a vote on remaining in, or leaving, the EU. Those who prefer our membership of the EU as it is today, rather than with additional Cameron reforms, or who would like different progressive reforms to the EU, will only be able to keep arguing for positive and progressive change in the EU by staying on the inside. Voting to leave, is not a vote against Cameron’s reforms (whatever he manages to achieve); it is a vote against the EU, a vote for the UK to be entirely on the side-lines.
Any union that does argue for the UK to leave the EU – whether as a general argument or as a response to Cameron’s reforms (once our EU partners agree any) – needs to explain how the UK being outside the EU will in their view strengthen workers’ rights. And they need to explain how the UK, from the outside, will relate to the EU, and link up with other progressive parties and unions, who will all still be working together inside the EU.
It is certainly a tough time to argue a positive case for the EU – from the continuing failure to tackle the refugee crisis to the tough and damaging measures imposed on Greece. But splendid isolation is not a good alternative. Cameron chose a referendum to deal with Tory divisions on Europe; for the unions to align themselves with Tory eurosceptics arguing for ‘Brexit’ would be a sad day for the UK, the EU and the labour movement.
This blog first appeared at Open Democracy and is reproduced with permission