The summit where everyone lost

European leaders are claiming victory, but nothing has been resolved. And Britain is in the worst of

What a mess. Although leaders sought, with tedious predictability, to portray themselves as victors, last week's summit in Brussels was one where everybody lost. David Cameron used a veto which did not block anything, and instead relegated Britain to semi-detached EU status. Angela Merkel won a treaty that may never be ratified and with terms that most countries will not be able to keep to. And although the European Central Bank has been handed control over the two EU bail-out funds, and the IMF given an extra €200bn, there is still no "big bazooka' to calm the financial markets. The euro crisis has not been resolved.

British eurosceptics took to the airwaves to celebrate David Cameron's surprising move to veto plans for a very modest - and very conservative - treaty revision. The problem is that a veto implies the ability to stop something, whereas treaty change is going to happen anyway.

But what has Cameron won? The safeguards for the City that he talked about? Nope, even though President Van Rompuy had worked on texts with Cameron's officials before the summit started. It was when Cameron demanded that the UK should be exempted from financial regulation that the problems started. This was always going to be an impossible demand, but Cameron and his officials knew this and had prepared protocols and declarations that, without being guarantees, would have been enough to take back to London. Although Sarkozy initially refused this, Cameron should have been able to win out eventually. Unfortunately, Cameron, already regarded as a diplomatic lightweight by most leaders, over-played his hand, threatened a veto and Sarkozy called his bluff.

It is hard to understand why he chose, as Lord Kerr put it, to "pick up the ball and walk off the pitch before the game started". This was, remember, just a summit. A new treaty was not decided here, only the principals. It would have been quite natural for Cameron to take the deal to the House of Commons in order to establish a clear and detailed mandate for further negotiation.

Cameron has actually done his party and the moderate eurosceptics in his party no good. Although dramatically wielding the veto guaranteed 24 hours of positive coverage from eurosceptics, the reality is that Britain has been left with the worst of all worlds. He didn't win any safeguards - in fact, the City will almost certainly pay a large price as the UK was already struggling to find allies on financial regulation in the Council of Ministers and will now find it even harder -and an unnecessary and politically dangerous, treaty will go through anyway with Britain locked out of the room. Only the Conservatives who actually want Britain to leave the EU should be happy.

Indeed, an "in/out" referendum on our EU membership is now almost inevitable. Conservatives will soon grow frustrated at paying higher costs for fewer of the benefits of membership. If Cameron remains committed to EU membership, this will push more Tories into the arms of Ukip and the BNP.

Friday's BBC Newsnight programme, which treated us to Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott and Bernard Jenkin tearing lumps out of each other, highlighted the new tension that will divide the coalition. Yet amidst Oakeshott's anger and Jenkin's gloating came one revealing admission: Jenkin did not, he said, want Britain to leave the EU. Instead, he saw the summit as the first step towards re-negotiating our terms of membership and repatriating some powers. Jenkin's remarks are representative of most Tory MPs. But he is either disingenuous or stunningly naïve. Any goodwill towards the Conservatives has now evaporated - even though right-wing parties are in power in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. There is only one option facing Britain in the future: stay in or sod off.

There is nothing here for Europhiles to rejoice over either. As the only country not to take the summit deal back to their national parliament, the UK has been firmly established as a semi-detached member of the EU. Having worked hard to win allies and influence following the enmity caused by the Iraq war, Labour and Lib Dem MEPs will now have to cope with the suspicion and anger of their European sister-parties. The notion that Britain is intrinsically anti-European, disruptive and a "wrecker" will be hard to shift. They will also have to cope with a national debate on EU policy that will, even more than before, be divided along in/out lines.

The treaty proposals also demonstrated how toothless the European left currently is. Conservatives are now in power in Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain, and the terms of reference have been dictated by Merkel and, to a lesser extent, Sarkozy. The result is, as Owen Jones remarked, a treaty that locks in austerity for the eurozone. In particular, establishing a 0.5 per cent ceiling for structural deficits is a rule that few countries will be able to adhere to and will make it impossible for countries to pursue expansionary policies in the short or medium term. Europe's economies desperately need to achieve better budgetary discipline, but this is more of a strait-jacket than a life-jacket.

However, it is interesting that both François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, and Peer Steinbruck, the leader of the German SPD, have both attacked the proposals. Merkel remains a highly embattled Chancellor while Hollande, twenty points ahead of Sarkozy in the polls, is likely to be President within months. If the Merkozy duopoly stays committed to a full treaty change, then ratification will be very bumpy and uncertain.

But while the euro crisis remains unresolved, a new crisis has been created concerning Britain's status in the EU. Cameron has achieved the unique feat of leading his party inexorably towards another disastrous split over Europe while driving a decisive wedge between him and his Lib Dem coalition partners. More importantly, he has ensured that a summit about the future of the euro will instead be remembered as the time when Britain willingly isolated itself for no reward and moved dangerously close to Europe's exit door.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.