A stronger case needs to be made for the social benefits of EU membership
Graeme Macdonald, the chief executive of JCB, is unfazed by the prospect of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. He says it won’t result in the erection of trade barriers and might liberate British businesses from ‘red tape and regulation’.
But as is often the case with Eurosceptic arguments, detailed examples of these chokeholds on business are missing from the reports of his comments.
This may not be unintentional. What clichés like ‘red tape’ or ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ really refer to is often vital rights for workers initiated at EU level. Rare examples of specific changes that eurosceptics would like to see include calls from the ‘Fresh Start’ group of Tory MPs for the abolition of the ‘working time directive’, and the ‘Business for Britain’ lobby group’s advocacy of withdrawal from EU social and employment agreements.
And what precisely do these directives and social and employment rules entail? First and foremost, many of the basic rights at work that we all take for granted.
A report from the Involvement and Participation Association highlighted how the EU has played a fundamental role in extending and expanding rights at work in the UK. From protection for part time and temporary workers to protection from discrimination; from rights for working parents to the right to paid holidays and a regular lunch break; from health and safety to promoting employee voice; the EU has been fundamental in making the British workplace a fairer and more equal place.
It is a crafty Eurosceptic tactic to generalise these aspects of EU membership as ‘red tape’. The specific policies contained within EU agreements on workers’ rights are actually incredibly popular. Or they would be, if people realised that they existed.
Polling for the High Pay Centre and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung found that 82 per cent of people support the maintenance of existing rights at work, such as paid holiday and maternity leave, yet just 25 per cent correctly identified the EU as being the source of these rights.
This ‘what has the EU ever done for us?’ mentality is surely borne of pro-Europeans’ failure to challenge constant Eurosceptic grousing at ‘EU red tape’, or explain the many improvements in the working lives of British people that result from EU membership.
Such a case is there to be made. There is a reason why certain rights need to apply at EU level. Without such a floor of basic rights, member states would face perverse incentives to cut back on rights, wages and environmental protection in order to compete for business and investment. This would lead to a race to the bottom; a race in which working people would surely be the losers.
Within Europe, by contrast, we can agree common standards that ensure fair and dignified working conditions for everyone. The UK public already accepts this. The High Pay Centre found that 49 per cent of respondents agreed that the EU should set certain common standards on worker rights, against just 30 per cent who felt that member countries should be able to control their own policy in this area.
Indeed, there was a significant majority of support in favour of more EU-wide action, such as a floor on corporation tax or an EU-wide wealth tax, to prevent a race to the bottom and make it more difficult for big businesses and the super-rich to dodge their taxes.
This case for the EU’s social role needs to be a key part of the debate in the lead-up to the forthcoming referendum. In a globalised economy predicated on competition between states and businesses, we can expect further pressure on employment rights and working conditions.
Though imperfect, the EU is probably the most prominent supra-national institution capable of mitigating and pushing back against these pressures.
Yet, tragically, those who have gained least from globalisation and who are most in need of decent employment protection, seem to be the most fervently anti-EU, with UKIP winning a frightening share of the vote in Labour’s industrial Northern heartlands.
There is a serious risk that a pro-European campaign that ignores the EU’s social potential and focuses solely on the benefits of EU membership to big business risks losing the referendum. The vision of Social Europe – a Europe that is more than just a free trade zone – must be defended from the ideologically driven de-regulatory agenda of the Eurosceptic right.
Yes, the EU is good for jobs and investment in the UK. But the pro-EU argument needs to go beyond that. It needs to show that the EU has been – and remains – good for working people too.
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