A new chapter in EU integration, whether Britain likes it or not

The new EU treaty is bound to contain something that British sceptics think requires a referendum.

There will be a new treaty. It will commit euro members to fiscal discipline. It will be largely designed by the 17 current members of the European single currency. Others can join in if they want to. Those are the essential components of the deal announced today by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy after crisis talks in Paris.

In a sense this is exactly what had been expected. Discussions had been pointing in this direction since the end of last week. But the fact that the two leaders managed to say it at the same time in a live press conference lends the project a certain solidity and irrevocability. Something along the lines of what has been pledged might actually happen. Markets certainly seem reassured. The two leaders have promised monthly summits stretching ahead into the future (the preferred deadline is March 2012) to hammer out the details until a treaty is agreed and a new institutional and legal basis for the euro is fixed. The crucial fact as far as Britain is concerned here is that those summits will be convened among euro member heads of government. That is reasonable enough given it is their currency in crisis.

But Merkel did not describe these new summits as euro-fixing technical negotiations. She made it clear they would have a wide-reaching economic agenda to look at ways to stimulate growth through market reforms. That assertion spells disaster for David Cameron. His main demand in this process was to be included in the conversation about the future of the single market, to make sure Britain's vital interest in that aspect of European Union economic management was not overlooked in the hurry to redesign the single currency. If there are to be monthly euro-members-only summits looking at the whole growth and reform agenda it seems certain single market rules are going to get caught up in the negotiations. There are all sorts of ramifications if Britain isn't at the table, starting with the likely acceleration of moves on banking and finance reform to shift the balance of commercial power from the City of London to Frankfurt and Paris.

At a briefing shortly after the Merkel-Sarkozy press conference, the Prime Minister's spokesman made it clear the UK government's position is to examine more closely the content of what Germany and France are suggesting before forming a view on whether it would be better dealt with as a 17-member (euro only) treaty or a 27 member (full EU treaty). That position won't hold for long. It doesn't look as if Britain has much of a say anyway, and either outcome gives Cameron a headache. If he can persuade the European Council later this week that all 27 EU members should be working on a new treaty, he invites his backbenchers to present him with a shopping list of powers to repatriate during the talks. If he accepts that it should just be a 17-strong euro member treaty negotiation, he risks surrendering Britain's seat in a discussion that is plainly vital to our national economic interest. That process might still produce a document that has to be ratified by parliament. One way or another, the clamour for a referendum will grow.

Merkel and Sarkozy appear to have agreed a fast-track eurozone consolidation on a take it or leave it basis as far as the rest of the EU is concerned. From the French and German perspective it now looks as if the future of the European Union and the future of the single currency are the same thing. They are embarking on a new phase of integration. The implicit message to Britain: come along if you must, but stay in the back seat because we're driving.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.