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21 June 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:37am

The EU doesn’t protect workers’ rights – it has destroyed them

Freedom of movement is about bosses driving down wages, not holidays

By Kelvin Hopkins

A feeble and erroneous argument for supporting the EU – one which is repeatedly used by both government and opposition leaders – is that leaving the EU would damage employment in Britain. This is simply not true.

A campaign by Britain in Europe entitled “Out of Europe, Out of Work” claimed that Britain would lose millions of jobs if it left the EU. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, however, described the campaign as absurd, finding that British withdrawal would have no long-term impact on employment. In the words of its Director, Dr Martin Weale, the campaign was “pure Goebbels” and “a wilful distortion of the facts”.

The European Union is about economics, neoliberal economics, monetarist market capitalism – economics that do not work. It is inherently deflationist. That is to say, it is built on constraining economic demand and driving up unemployment. It is an economics that has failed in the past, is failing again and which has rolled back the successful economic arrangements that worked so well, so brilliantly indeed, in the immediate post-war decades.

This same economics is being inflicted on Britain – cuts and austerity. Living standards have fallen, wages reduced as a proportion of total economic output (GDP) and in real terms, and inequality and poverty increasing. 

In the rest of the EU however, things are worse, especially in the eurozone.

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The EU is not at its core about employment rights, nor even is it about human rights. The EU has accepted employment rights to give the illusion that it is on the side of workers and trade unions – at least slightly – and to try to keep trade unions passive.

The millions of unemployed in Spain, Greece and increasingly elsewhere have seen no benefit from alleged worker and trade union rights. In the cases of the Viking Line and Laval, workers tried to contest their employers replacing them with lower-paid workers from another EU country. But the European Court of Justice found in favour of employers rather than workers.

Across the whole of the EU, the plight of working people is getting worse. Due to the legacy of neoliberal economic policies, unemployment even in Britain is now at least four times higher than it was in the successful postwar decades. And if unemployment in Britain were to be at the same level as in Spain, there would be over seven million on the dole rather than two million. 

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Labour Europhiles raise the spectre of Britain losing worker and trade union rights and, indeed, human rights if Britain left the EU. But the simple counter argument is that Labour could and should commit to re-establishing rights taken away by the Tories and the Coalition.

Labour could, and should, recommit to membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (not a creation of the European Union but established by the Council of Europe) and International Labour Organisation conventions. Affiliated unions could and should simply commit the party to a package of progressive legislation to re-establish trade union and worker rights immediately after the next election.

Another of the great shibboleths of the EU is “free movement”, and especially free movement of labour. This is simply a means of driving down wages in pursuit of profit. It is a component of laissez-faire capitalist ideology designed to weaken worker bargaining power.

Freedom for European citizens to visit each other’s countries for holidays and take pleasure in doing so is admirable. Enforcing free movement of labour is quite something else. Work permits for workers from overseas to fill skills gaps, even if temporary, would be appropriate. But in that case, it is surely fair and reasonable to have the same rules for EU citizens as for Commonwealth citizens. Ireland should of course retain its historic access to the UK.

The EU is both antidemocratic and anti-socialist. What will in the end destroy it is the fact it is failing economically. Restoring national currencies, and letting those currencies adjust to appropriate parities, will be the first crucial step in the process of restoring democracy. It’s time to permit national parliaments do what is necessary to rebuild their economies, serve the interests of their people and thus all the peoples of Europe.

Kelvin Hopkins is the Labour MP for Luton North and a Leave campaigner