Mark Serwotka: Why Ed Miliband is right to speak at Durham today

We need a united opposition to coalition policies that are wrecking Britain.

Today I will be speaking at the 128th Durham Miners' Gala, a profound and moving event that continues to attract crowds in the tens of thousands and keeps the spirit of working class solidarity and unity alive.

I will be saying that it has never been more important for the labour movement to be united than in these extraordinary times in which we are living.

Youth unemployment is the highest on record, tens of billions of pounds of public spending is being cut – including massive job cuts, a public sector pay freeze and attacks on pensions – and unemployed and disabled people are receiving unparalleled abuse.

We have to be united to oppose this most vicious attack on everything our movement stands for: protecting the most vulnerable; providing decent jobs for all who can work, and a decent standard of living for those that cannot; providing decent public services that serve the public good, not private profit; and defending working class communities through strong trade unions and community organisations.

That unity is built around opposing this Tory-led government’s attacks on the people we represent.

So when they force people into strike action, we back those brave men and women out on strike – whether over public sector pensions, whether it’s cleaners, Remploy workers or the heroic Spanish miners.

In the 1980s, miners in the north east and elsewhere struggled heroically for jobs and justice. Their opponents were a Tory government and the Murdoch press.

Thanks to the campaigning MP Tom Watson – with whom I will be sharing a platform at Durham – and others, we've taken a chunk out of the Murdoch empire.

Now we need to do the same to this Tory government – a government that last year gave us lower growth and a sharper increase in unemployment than in the Eurozone.

This is no time for prevarication. When they're dismantling the welfare state, we oppose them. When they're forcing families out of their homes through housing benefit cuts, we oppose them. When they freeze pay and try to introduce poverty pay in the regions, we oppose them.

Bob Diamond walked away last week with a £2m pay off – more than 30,000 times what the 2.6m people on the dole will get this week.

The financial crisis which began in the boardrooms and in the stock exchanges is being paid for by those in the care homes and on the dole queues.

Cuts, austerity, call it what you like. It is the wrong solution. Wrong because it isn't working, it is damaging our economy, and wrong because of the misery it is causing in our communities.

The gala shows the labour movement at our best, and I welcome Ed Miliband's decision to speak this year. We have to take the spirit of Durham across the country.

We must be united: in our trade unions, in our communities, in our town halls and in parliament. We must be united and we must fight these cuts every inch of the way.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union

Trade union demonstrators outside parliament on 26 March 2011. Photograph: Getty
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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.