George Orwell believed a Socialist United States of Europe was the only truly worthwhile political objective. He argued that most people associated “Socialism” with “higher wages, shorter hours, better houses, all-round social insurance, etc. etc.” (though he felt these benefits actually came about from the exploitation of colonial subjects). To some extent, the history of European integration has been a struggle between competing visions of Europe: the socialist Europe of worker rights and protections versus “a Europe built on Thatcherite ideals of liberty and Atlanticism”.
In reality, most EU leaders have been trying to strike a balance between these visions. In his first State of the Union speech in 2015, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced he intended to create a “European Pillar of Social Rights”: “We have to step up the work for a fair and truly pan-European labour market. (…) As part of these efforts, I will want to develop a European Pillar of Social Rights, which takes account of the changing realities of Europe’s societies and the world of work. And which can serve as a compass for the renewed convergence within the euro area.”
What do our readers think? Has the balance tilted too far in favour of austerity, neoliberalism, and untrammelled free markets? We had a comment sent in from Chiara, who says she is concerned about workers being badly paid with poor job security in Europe today. How can the EU not just help create jobs, but help create high-quality jobs?
To get a response, we put Chiara’s comment to Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (EUTC). What would he say?
Thank you Chiara for your question. There are two things in this question, the first one is how to create quality jobs, and of course if we don’t change the current macroeconomic policy of the European Union it will be very difficult to succeed in this respect. That’s why we as the trade unions are pushing for extraordinary plans for investment, public and private investment. It is the only way to manage the transition to a greener economy, towards a better digital environment in the economy, but also to create more jobs in general. And quality jobs means jobs that are protected, that have a decent salary, that have decent social protection, rights in the workplace, good working conditions, etc., etc. So, investment is the first keyword.
The second keyword is convergence, in the sense that we have an incredible wage gap today in the European Union, in the labour market, between different countries – east and west, south and north – but also within countries between different sectors. So, there is an issue regarding the need to push for a pay rise for European workers in general, but particularly for those countries that have been left behind. And, in this respect, there is a need to reinforce industrial relations and collective bargaining in each and every country, giving the possibility also to precarious workers in the digital economy, in the platforms, in the gig economy, to get access to trade unions to be able to organise themselves in trade unions and have the possibility to deliver proper collective bargaining to bargain better wages for themselves.
To get another perspective, we put the same question to Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Finland. In 2015, Stubb said Finland was the “sick man of Europe“, with unemployment at 10% and the lowest level of growth in the Eurozone. The country subsequently undertook a series of painful structural reforms (including cutting labour benefits) which supporters say have rescued the economy, though unions have dubbed the reforms “unjust”. How would he respond to Chiara?
We also had a comment from Willem, who is worried about a possible ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of labour law reforms. He calls for union-negotiated, EU-wide labour standards.
How would Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, respond to Willem’s comment?
Well, Willem, the point is that, unfortunately, the European Union doesn’t have so much possibility to intervene on labour laws. Labour law is still a national matter, and Member States of the European Union are very jealous regarding their subsidiarity and autonomy and independence in this respect. But, nevertheless, there are two things that can be done; the first one is that through the so-called ‘semester process’ it’s possible for the European Union to recommend that the Member States go in the right direction in terms of labour reforms in a way such that rights can really cover each and every worker in each and every sector regardless of their working contract or status… This can be done. Unfortunately, in the past, the European Union has done exactly the opposite, in the sense that what was recommended was to fragment even more the labour market with so-called ‘structural reforms’. Now there is a different trend going on, fortunately, in the sense that after the so-called ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ was proclaimed at the European level, now the European Union has started to recommend progressive reforms on the labour market.
There is also a second element to be considered: that, in any case, the European Union can establish some legal frameworks in terms of working conditions. Of course it cannot intervene on national matters, but it can set, let’s say, a minimum ‘floor’ of rights, some kind of ‘level playing field’ in terms of labour rights at the European level. And there are under discussion, by the way, exactly at this moment some new directives that are precisely going in this direction, in the sense of extending a minimum floor of rights to each and every type of worker in the European Union. So, there are some possible solutions.
Are worker rights under threat in the EU? How can we avoid a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of labour law reforms? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!