The European social model still matters to the UK – let’s keep campaigning for a people’s Europe

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Published date
09 Oct 2017
While UK politicians battle it out over what sort of Brexit we’re going to get (and, indeed, what sort to aim for), the rest of the European Union is getting on with its life

And European trade unions, as well as showing exceptional solidarity with our concerns, are demanding a new future for the rest of Europe, as well as a decent pay rise for workers east and west.

Although it may look as if there is little to interest British workers in that struggle, actually nothing could be further from the truth.

One reason why people in the UK voted to leave the EU last year was because, since the year 2000, the EU hasn’t done enough to defend working people’s rights or drive economic success.

We were campaigning to remain with one hand tied behind our back, looking to past achievements rather than holding out a positive vision of a future in Europe.

Revitalising the European social model

Trade unions across the EU, grouped in the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) shared our frustration. Since the millennium, we have been forced to defend what we’ve won in the past, rather than making progress.

As the world of work changed, and the storm clouds of the global financial crisis gathered, Social Europe became less valuable to working people.

Then, the financial crisis led to a social and political crisis. The so-called troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) imposed austerity in Greece, Ireland and so on.

The coalition in Britain adopted austerity voluntarily. And wage stagnation began to eat away at household budgets everywhere, while the erosion of collective bargaining and increasingly aggressive tax dodging led to growing inequality.

The consequent economic problems and the rise of populist political movements pushed European governments to at least consider a limited revitalisation of the European social model.

The European Commission’s proposal for a ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ will be considered in November at a European social summit in Gothenburg. The Swedish government, led by Prime Minister and former metalworkers union leader Stefan Lofven, is pressing for new rights and policies that would benefit working people, rather than bosses.

Why a better EU will mean a better Brexit

The proposed European Pillar of Social Rights isn’t by any means enough, but it could be a start that trade union campaigning can build on. And it could be good for working people in Britain, too.

Because regardless of Britain’s future relationship with the EU, the better working people are treated in the rest of Europe, the better off we’ll be, too.

If we stay in the single market, we’ll continue to benefit from the improvements in workers’ rights secured by the ETUC. And if we find another way to ensure UK governments can’t undermine our rights, we’ll carry on benefitting from the safety net of an improved social model.

And if the European trade union movement campaign for a pay rise is successful, European workers will have more money to buy UK exports, too, supporting the jobs that pay the best and require the most skills.

Politically, an EU with better rights at work and higher pay will represent a model to follow and a target to aim for.

In the early 1990s, when British workers were locked out of the European social chapter by Thatcher’s opt out, unions campaigned successfully for the enhanced rights workers had in the rest of Europe.

On to Gothenburg

So that’s why the TUC is going to be cheering on the trade unionists going to Gothenburg in November, and, despite Brexit, we’ll still be campaigning for a people’s Europe rather than a bosses’ Europe.