Grahame Smith: EU has potential to get more achieved

In the latest in our series, Grahame Smith, the STUC general secretary, argues while Europe is imperfect it still works to Britain's advantage

A star would fall if the UK votes to leave the union, instead working from inside the chance exists to change it. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

You would be forgiven for finding the debate around the EU a distant and faintly ludicrous affair.

The Conservative Party seems to be tearing itself apart, with its increasingly bitter and polarised squabbling, for the most part taking place outside Scotland.

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The Scottish Parties, perhaps understandably preoccupied with the Holyrood elections, have yet to get out of the traps. When the EU Referendum is mentioned, it is done so in large part, not with reference to the merits of the EU, but to the Referendum to come should the rest of the UK vote to take Scotland out of the EU against its wishes.

As enticing as this may seem for some supporters of Scottish independence, it misses the obvious point – it is far from certain that Scotland will vote to remain or the rest of the UK will vote leave.

If recent elections have taught us anything, it is that opinion polls are simply that and nothing is certain until the votes are cast and counted.

It is imperative that Scottish voters engage in this debate and our politicians must offer greater leadership than has thus far been evident. Little of the debate emerging from Westminster speaks to the concerns of working people and it offers little of relevance for people who would like to build a better future for themselves and their families.

The EU can, of course, be a difficult beast to engage with. It is riddled with contradictions. It exerts a high degree of influence on the lives of Scottish workers, yet at the same time appears detached from their daily concerns. The structures of the EU appear complex, bringing together as they do 28 separate nation states in a feat of democratic engagement that is at the same time perceived as undemocratic and bureaucratic.

Yet it should not be forgotten what the EU is and what it enabled its member states to achieve, born, as it was, in the ashes of the Second World War and offering a vision for peace, cooperation and unity to people across a continent that had previously been divided by fascism.

The EU remains a political project without compare – 28 member states, sharing sovereignty to create a single market, underpinned by fundamental freedoms and human rights, and a mechanism to challenge the economic power of global corporations and to seek common solutions to shared problems.

In April, the STUC Congress in Dundee voted overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining a member of the EU because unions recognise that this is the option which aligns best with our economic and social justice objectives and is in the best interest of workers in Scotland and their families.

The EU is not perfect in its operation and in recent years the actions of its member states, the UK included, have undermined its laudable ideals.

The pursuit of austerity and consequent corruption of democracy, combined with inadequate action in the face of globalisation and a discourse built on fear and greed, have undermined its social ideals. There was no illustration of this greater than the actions of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund towards Greece.

Here an unflinching attachment to monetarist economic orthodoxy inflicted immense hardship on workers and citizens. European leaders demonstrated clearly that economic objectives took priority over social concerns even when to do so was to enter an economic cul-de-sac, where little of benefit could be achieved for people in Greece or beyond.

In its approach to major trade deals, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the EU appears to have put the interests of big corporations before of its citizen.

On tax, on banking reform, on its absolutely disgraceful failure to respond to the refugee crisis, the EU has lost its way. Time and time again we see examples of just how far its social values have been eroded and its citizens let down.

There is no doubt that the EU needs to reform and there is no doubt about the scale of the challenge that faces those of us who want to create a more just Europe. The EU must better serve its citizens, and rediscover the social dimension that characterised its past. Ultimately, the interests of workers and communities must be at heart of everything it does.

To achieve this, the EU must be more democratic and accountable. Unions and communities must have the opportunity to play a more active role in shaping its decisions. The EU should have as its overarching objective a desire to reduce inequality; end poverty; and guarantee access to services and fundamental employment and Human Rights; and every citizen must have an income that enables them to live with dignity.

With reformed structures, more transparent and inclusive decision making and progressive political leadership, including at member state level, the EU has the potential to make a significant impact on issues that require a collective response – like climate change, tax avoidance, banking reform, international development and the refugee crisis. On these issues action at an EU level is not just desirable but essential. So much more can be achieved through collective action by 28 Member States than by the UK acting alone.

For some, Brexit is seen as a way to escape the EU’s neo-liberal proclivities and the negative impact of globalisation and to retain national sovereignty.

In practice, the UK cannot and will not retreat behind its national borders and nor should it. It will continue to trade with the rest of the world, the EU in particular, and be vulnerable to the antics of hedge fund managers and corporate magnates.

It is naïve to believe that any trading or regulatory arrangements put in place by the UK on its own would be better for working people than those that could be achieved within the EU.

Equally any repatriated resources from the EU on exit, would not be used to reverse austerity. There would be no replacement of the money currently available to devolved administrations from the European Structural and Investment Funds which are used to support some of our most deprived communities.

Talk of regaining control of immigration upon exit plays to the fears of workers, many of whom are trapped in precarious work and are genuinely suffering in a labour market tarnished by globalisation and unbridled corporate power.

There is little of substance in the argument that limiting migration through removing the fundamental right to freedom of movement will increase the security of Scottish workers, nor is there any evidence to support the claim that ’benefit tourism’ is a driver of migration or a drag on our public services.

The bigger threat to workers remains the pursuit of lower labour market protections, further deregulation and the sort of “hire and fire” culture so visible in US businesses, that stands in sharp contrast to the principles of collective bargaining, social dialogue and an appreciation of the positive role of trade unions that are still visible in many European nations.

In the 70s and 80s it was the EU and not Westminster that was responsible for enhancing workers’ rights, that drove regional policy and supported communities blighted by industrial decline, giving workers the chance of new jobs; and the EU could play this role again.

It is possible to create a just Europe built on the principles of equality and social justice, but this can only happen if we change the approach of member states, including the UK, and unite with communities and unions across Europe to instigate change.

We must sweep away the corrupt and self-serving rules that allow the rich to rig the game in their favour – so clearly exposed by the Panama Papers – and establish a renewed social contract that replaces the politics of greed with the politics of aspiration and hope.

We can create a people’s Europe built on social justice and a positive vision for the future and the first step on the journey to a more just Europe is to vote for the UK to remain in the EU on 23 June.

• Grahame Smith is STUC General Secretary


• The Centre of Economic and Business Research estimates 4.2 million jobs or 13.3 per cent of the UK workforce are associated with exports within the EU.

• The Scottish Government analysis states that the EU remains Scotland’s key international export market receiving 46 per cent of international exports compared with 16 per cent to North America, Scotland’s second-biggest international market.

• The EU has secured useful protections in the workplace including rights for women; part-time, temporary and agency workers; on redundancy; consultation; for working parents; health and safety; limitations on excessive hours and the

right to paid holiday.

As a result of EU directives on workplace protections:

• Six million workers gained new or enhanced rights to paid holidays (two million of whom had previously had no paid annual leave.)

• Around 400,000 part-time workers, mostly women, gained improved pay and conditions when equal treatment rights were introduced.