General Council statement on EU referendum

Issue date
16 Sep 2015

Congress notes that there will be a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union at some time in the next two years, possibly before the 2016 Congress.

Over the years, Congress has consistently expressed support for a European Union that delivers economic prosperity based on social justice, civil and human rights, equality for all and rights at work. However, two developments in the recent period have called the achievements of the EU into question:

i. The part played by the institutions of the EU in intensifying the crisis in Greece, in demanding the imposition of further neo-liberal measures including extensive privatisation and cuts to welfare and social provisions on that country, and in undermining the policies of its democratically elected government.

ii. The EU’s advocacy of CETA, TTIP and similar agreements designed to advance the interests of transnational capital across Europe, opening up public services to marketisation and privatisation and over-riding the policies of elected governments.

These factors reflect the increasing domination of neo-liberal ideology within the European Union and inevitably prejudice the EU’s historic high standing within the labour movement.  There is a danger that these factors can only be exacerbated by David Cameron’s renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership. He has made it clear that these include the possibility of a further dilution or even disappearance of EU wide social protections as they apply in Britain.

These protections have included rights for women, part-time, temporary and agency workers, rights in situations of redundancy and information and consultation, rights for working parents and a range of health and safety rights, including limitations on excessive hours and the creation of a work-life balance. The positive benefits that the EU has delivered for working people are recognised – rights which are essential in any modern economy -  and those rights should be  both promoted and strengthened. Congress strongly rejects the attempts being made by the Prime Minister to use the renegotiation process to undermine workers’ rights, to foster divisions around migration, and to promote a Europe for financial and business elites only.

Congress believes that Conservative attempts to obtain an ‘opt-out’ from EU wide protections for UK workers, seeking to water down rights – especially the Working Time Directive and the Temporary Agency Workers Directive – and to impose a moratorium on future employment rights is wrong and counter-productive. Working people, faced with the prospect of a Europe based on insecurity at work and flexibility on employers’ terms, will have little enthusiasm to vote and be even less likely if they do, to vote to stay in the European Union.

We have also consistently argued that Government attempts to restrict benefits for migrants coming from other parts of Europe would herald an attack on everyone’s in-work benefits – a view justified by reports this summer. Some employers will always try to use new entrants to the labour market – women, young workers or migrants – to drive down wages, and we believe the EU has a positive role to play in preventing this exploitation by providing a floor of EU wide fundamental rights and labour standards, including the right to collective bargaining and the protection and enforcement of national level collective agreements. Congress believes that the only effective and acceptable ways to address concerns about free movement are to provide working people with the security against exploitation and undercutting that strong unions and decent rights at work, robustly enforced, would provide; and to expand access to public services and housing, using EU funding that follows migrants so that they can adapt to population changes.

Since the Government announced its plans for the EU Referendum, the TUC has campaigned and lobbied to expose the Government’s anti-worker rights agenda; to press employers to accept the need for a high level of workers’ rights as the quid pro quo for access to the single market; and to persuade other European Governments to reject the agenda of worse rights for working people, including freedom of movement, that the Prime Minister is more or less openly advocating. We have worked closely with other trade unions across Europe in seeking to ensure that their politicians understand that no concessions will satisfy the Prime Minister’s Eurosceptic backbenchers or UKIP, and that such concessions would also undermine support for the European Union in their own countries.

The European Union is Britain’s biggest trading partner, and millions of jobs in Britain aligned to that trade and could be put at risk if the UK left the EU. But we deplore the way in which European political leaders have put narrow sectional interests and the economics of austerity ahead of solidarity with countries facing economic crises - in particular Greece, but also Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain - as well as refugees like those fleeing oppression and war on Europe’s southern borders. We reject the European Union’s support for liberalisation and deregulation, including in trade deals like CETA with Canada and TTIP with the USA, both of which the TUC opposes, measures undermining collective bargaining in Eastern and Southern Europe and judgements of European courts that undermine negotiated sector level agreements providing minimum labour protections.

The TUC will continue to advocate a positive vision of a people’s Europe and reforms that would promote investment for sustainable growth, decent work with good wages and a greater say for people at work. Investment in public infrastructure like social housing, transport, telecommunications and energy efficiency could create 11 million highly skilled and well-paid jobs across Europe. Europe needs a pay rise and an adequate floor of enforceable minimum wages to protect the most vulnerable.

In the run up to the EU Referendum, we will continue to campaign and lobby against the Government’s attempts to further water down Social Europe.  The government and industry needs to understand that neither the TUC position nor the votes of millions of trade unionists can be taken for granted. Workers will not back or support a Europe that fails to protect and enhance the position of working people, citizens and civil society or one that solely works in the narrow interests of global corporations and finance capital. We hope that the Prime Minister’s efforts to weaken workers’ rights will fail but if they do not, we are issuing a warning to the Prime Minister: you will lose our members votes to stay in the EU by worsening workers’ rights. Once the full results of the renegotiation and timetable for the referendum are known the TUC will take stock of our position. However, both the Prime Minister and CBI should note that should he succeed in further undermining British workers rights pressure to put TUC resources and support in the referendum behind a vote to leave the European Union will intensify dramatically.