Tuesday, April 5, 2016

#Brexit: Countering the Confusion of Remain

In this, my second ‘blog on Europe, I’m looking to tackle the arguments made by the ‘Remain’ campaign. Before I start, for the cynics, my earlier, first post sets out the positive reasons to leave and my third (to come) looks constructively at the benefits as I see them for industrial strategy taking the steel industry as an urgent case-in-point. There are lots of comments made about how negative the ‘Out’ campaign is, and they can often seem justified – but this is often because it’s being fought on the terms of the ‘In’ campaign, of tackling the status-quo.
So here are my handy, but brief, objections to the case to remain:

The EU gives us loads of worker protection

Errr… does it?

So there’s the Working Time Directive, whose provisions are mostly minimal, and its most critical bit, the bit which should not only protect leisure time but lead to increasing levels of employment, we have an opt-out from. Moreover, no party is yet proposing ending that opt-out, rendering a key bit of protection useless.

As long as governments in Britain can opt out of European policy, as we do on the WTR, a position entrenched in Cameron’s ‘deal’, then the idea that it sets some sort of unchallengeable set of minimum provisions is simply untrue.

And what about other protections? Agency workers did indeed benefit from the introduction of new regulations within the last five years, but the liberal left should remember that the Labour and Conservative parties voted against it in the European parliament, and watered it down in the legislative process. Other than that, I really do have to think.

Minimum wages, redundancy payments, the right to unfair dismissal, maternity and paternity provisions are all either entirely domestic legislation, or legislation which is better than the EU minima. The EU says nothing about zero hours contracts, or inappropriate definitions of ‘freelancers’. The EU is not wantonly dragging the British state toward social democracy, as the Equality Act 2010 demonstrates. The main purpose of the Act was to bring together four pieces of legislation, all of which predate the general framework of the EU Equal Treatment Directives, and one of which (The Equal Pay Act) predates even our membership. The meaningful specifics of how these principles affect British people were fought for and won here, in the UK.

And the most simple counter to the idea that the EU improves workers’ rights? Simple: everyone on the left agrees that workers’ rights have fallen under the governments between 1979 and 1997, and since 2010. Some of us would say that the period in between was hardly glowing. And we’ve been in the EU all that time. How can an organisation which is there, we are told to protect workers, have been expanding and growing in influence during the period of stagnation and decline in standards? The answer is simple – because it’s there to do just the opposite.

As an aside, why are we so pre-occupied with statutory protection? Real dignity for working people doesn’t just lie with the pound in their pocket, but the voice to demand it. The EU restricts worker bargaining for freelancers with restrictive ‘cartel’ legislation and outlaws closed shops – it doesn’t impose a social dialogue or sectoral bargaining model on nations to give working people there a real say. Frankly, if the left keep saying statutory protection is the best thing going, and isn’t compelling enough to fight for themselves, ordinary workers are going to ask what the point of joining a union or our movement really is.

The EU is the guarantor of peace in Europe

Of all the claims made, this is particularly ridiculous. Firstly, I don’t think anyone on the left should be making the argument that free-market capitalism is a viable, let alone inevitable, path to world peace. This is not a place for a discussion on the basics of the common points of the dialectic. But. I mean. Really.

And it’s nonsense. The EU’s early purpose was yes to stop European states fighting each other but as an act of economic warfare against the Soviet bloc! To describe it as guaranteeing peace for that time (where the Cold War didn’t make it look too peaceful to most people) is like saying the treaties of the Axis powers guaranteed peace between Germany, Japan and Italy.

The EU became no more benign afterwards either in terms of global security. The idea of ‘protecting’ central and eastern European states against Russian influence was at the heart of expansion – the consequences of which have been violent in Ukraine, in Georgia and soon, I’m sure, elsewhere.

The EU doesn’t undermine terms and conditions, it strengthens them

I grew up in a decimated industrial community. I’ve worked as a trades unionist in processed chicken factories, unionising industrial cleaners and across small, low-skilled industries. I live in a divers community in central London. My friends and family work in the private sector in casual, manual employment. Through these experiences and a not-too-difficult application of logic, I know this is simply not true.

Eastern and central European workers are de-skilling themselves, creating brain drains in their communities and countries, and coming to Britain to take up low skilled employment at great personal risk. Whether it be picking fruit in Lincolnshire, gang-mastered into anonymous, crowded houses, applying for jobs through ethnic language newspapers In factories segregated between British and non-British workers, European workers are undermining terms here and communities abroad.

I know from first-hand experience how such oppressed workers won’t join unions. Sometimes they are afraid, or lack the linguistic or cultural skills to do so or, as memorably translated for me time and again by a Polish priest in a parish in Sheffield where I tried hard to support fellow Catholic workers (many being women with young families): ‘why should I get what a British worker is entitled to?’ and ‘I’m going home, I don’t care how bad it is now’.

European statutory protection is weak, but legislation and collective agreements of any standard mean nothing in reality mean nothing in this context. British workers who can’t and won’t work for below legal standards (or it’s too risky to ask them to) find themselves undercut.

It’s good for business, which creates jobs

Well the above pretty much explains why business likes us being in, and clearly being part of the EU’s free market does open opportunities for business here – but what about the job bit?

Listening to the panic of big business on the prospect of leaving reveals the sordid truth. The jobs the EU directly creates are:

  1. Low paid jobs which big business wants vulnerable European labour for instead of offering decent terms to British workers
  2. Skilled jobs where big business wants to plunder other economies for instead of skilling up our own workforce
  3. Management jobs where the highest paid executives can come, own property and play capital markets at with minimal responsibility to the people they affect

Any indirect job creation comes at a high price, and could be just as easily created through bi-lateral treaties and trading arrangements on a case-by-case basis not just in Europe, but across the Globe.

The EU supports British regions in a highly centralised state

True, the EU has supported lots of regional infrastructure against a self-interested British state, hell-bent on centralisation. But anybody who flicks through the reams of reports produced by Eurobarometer can see the often sinister reasoning behind it.

How meaningful is it really? Yes, direct projects with funding, parameters and purpose have been positive, but if one looks at the indirect effect of the multi-national union, the effects are clear.

The EU is a key part of the UK’s success in the financial sector, as numerous threats from big banks have shown. This support through harmonising (pretty poor) regulation, allowing the opt-out from the Euro, and the free capital market has led to the exponential growth in London as a financial black hole, sucking economic life from the rest of the country.

Its regulations around preventing nationalisation of industry except in cases where the entire economy is at risk is currently threatening the whole of South Wales and communities across England involved in steel production. Rules which demand the UK government has to treat all tenders from Europe equally, not favouring British bids, means strategic choices in trains from Doncaster, cars from the Midlands and ships from Teeside and Scotland simply cannot be made.

EU membership destroys the ability of a national government to have a sensible strategy in terms of a national industrial policy, and supporting sustainable growth in its regions.

We live in a world with global issues – the environment, population displacement – you can’t retreat to England

No, but you can’t retreat to Europe either.

Membership of the EU means we can’t favour non-Europeans over Europeans when looking at controlled migration. I think some of the most positive reasons to leave are to do with shaking off the imperialist Euro-centric tendencies we have toward migration, as per my post here [LINK].

Carbon emissions don’t stop at national borders, or continental ones. Effective management of this is done through global action and international treaties involving major polluters, so I’m yet to be convinced that European-wide strategies on the environment are effective. They can’t take account of nuances in regional economies (like the importance of protecting steel) and can’t direct the local action which is frankly the most important type of change we must make to protect our environment.

It’s about solidarity and internationalism

No it’s really, really not.

It’s about technocrats over the will of ordinary people.

It’s about a free market of capital trumping the protections labour deserves.

It’s about the free movement of labour, not the free movement of human beings.

It’s about European imperialism.

It’s about European paternalism.

It’s about what it’s done to workers in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain.

It’s about taking decisions away from communities.

It’s about a right-wing free-market project, warts and all.