Workers of the EU, unite!

Published in The New Statesman 12 September 2005


An exhibition at this year's Congress marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It is a miniature war factory, complete with antique clock, portrait of Ernest Bevin and transcripts of interviews with men and women who worked in factories, offices, dockyards, hospitals and pits. It commemorates the achievements of the millions of British trade union members who fought on the Home Front. British workers then knew that they were not only British, but European. They accepted the fundamental logic of geography and a common political culture in which democracy and freedom were inalienable rights.

British trade unionists today are confronted by the UK Independence Party, members on the Tory front bench and even some Labour backbenchers arguing that we must guard against being too passionately European. "Being European", they say, means neglecting our internationalist duty as citizens of the world. This idea first appeared in Hugh Gaitskell's speech at the Labour conference in 1962, when he persuaded the party to reject the Common Market. In 1963, when Harold Macmillan first applied to join the European Economic Community, the communists denounced this narrow capitalist club and called for real pan-European unity with the people's democracies of east central Europe. Today, however, there are no people's democracies, the EU's 25 member states cover most of their former territory, and the European Trade Union Confederation, in which the TUC is an enthusiastic participant, is a model of internationalism. There is no longer a foundation for visceral anti-Europeanism on the left.

On the preliminary agenda for Congress this year, there are five motions whose main subject is the EU, three of which urge the TUC to pursue a specific agenda inside EU institutions that could yield significant gains for British workers. The AUT calls on the TUC "to make the case to the government that investment in and support for research, science and education are essential to the future success of Europe". The Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists asks the TUC to help affiliated professional unions whose members will acquire new working rights under a directive permitting them to practise in other member states. And the Air Line Pilots union is even more ambitious. It wants the TUC to appoint a task group to identify the legislative changes needed to enable trade unions in the EU to represent their members across national boundaries, and to make collective agreements and contracts of employment enforceable across the EU.

These motions have a common thread: practical engagement with issues at the top of the European Commission's and Council's agenda. Even a motion from the RMT, which raises the French and Dutch rejection of the EU constitution, nevertheless resolves that the TUC should campaign for a European and global workers' agenda. Likewise, a motion from Amicus proposes that "Congress believes the UK government should support the European social model of economic prosperity twinned with social cohesion", and commits Congress to campaign for "implementation of EU employment directives in a way that is compatible with the social dimension". This pragmatic approach towards the EU is a sign of the times, and trade unionists could reap the benefits.

Governments, shop stewards and citizens in all the EU's 25 member states will eventually have to engage with the structural problems precipitated by enlargement. The British government delayed our referendum on the constitution, so we have not had the serious discussion that preoccupied France and the Netherlands in May about what it means to be European in the 21st century. If the British people are going to play their part in repointing Europe, we have to go back to the constitution, to find out what we want to salvage from it and where it went wrong. In the absence of useful material from our government, there is an excellent summary produced by the Republic of Ireland's National Forum on Europe (see www.new-politics.net), which is even recommended by the pressure group Trade Unionists Against a European Constitution. It can be read in half an hour and provides an invaluable jumping-off point for future debates. The sooner we start thinking the better.

Nina Fishman is professor of industrial and labour history at the University of Westminster