A 'Fresh Start' for Britain in Europe?

A new manifesto, 'Fresh Start', has been published by a group of Conservative MPs proposing a new relationship between the UK and EU. The (not so hidden) agenda: sweeping away many of the rights that protect British workers from exploitation.

The Tory clamour for the repatriation of powers from the EU plays well with a public - and not just Colonel Blimps from Tunbridge Wells - that still hankers after the idealised notion of a powerful and independent Britain that “rules the waves” and much else besides.  This clamour has always disguised the real objectives of neo-liberals and Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party and elsewhere. 

But now, emboldened by the anti-EU drift in the country, the manifesto of the Fresh Start Tory MPs makes it clear, their principal aim is “to seize back control of employment and social laws”:  in other words, to abolish the economic and social rights, including a vast array of labour law, that people in Britain have enjoyed thanks to the EU.  This aim is entirely consistent with the coalition government’s welfare strategy (see Deborah Padfield's moving piece on this) and already has William Hague’s approval. He writes in the foreword to their manifesto, “Many of the proposals are already government policy, some could well become future government or Conservative Party policy and some may require further thought.” The EU’s Social Chapter is at the heart of their rage.  In 1989, Margaret Thatcher denounced an early version as “a socialist charter”, and at Maastricht, John Major spoke strongly against it while negotiating a clause making it an optional choice for member states. He then ratified the treaty while opting out of the Social Chapter.  Tony Blair signed up in 1997 (and to the Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000).  Since then social Europe has developed, with a significant EU directive increasing the rights of temporary workers in 2011.

However, Labour government policy as a whole remained dedicated to the neo-liberal idea of a “flexible labour market” and the restriction of trade union and workers’ rights that might obstruct the freedoms of employers. In 2004, when EU negotiations over the Charter of Fundamental Rights were proceeding, Jack Straw reassured the CBI that he would not allow the charter “to upset the balance of Britain’s industrial relations policy” and the government put “the interests of business at the heart of our negotiating position”.  This is a stance that remains central to the political class’s strategy for the UK, and is taking an extreme form in Tory plans.

Fresh Start’s two main targets are the working time directive and the temporary agency workers directive, but there are also other provisions such as the transfer of undertaking directive, which guarantees rights when one firm is bought by another, as well as to health and safety directives, rights to information, parental leave, employment protection for part-time workers and equal pay. The backbench group, representing 130 Tory MPs, admits its call for a complete repatriation of social powers would require treaty changes, but is not prepared to settle for less. The Social Chapter is viewed across the EU as an important element in the single market, but Fresh Start argues that just as not all EU countries are members of the eurozone or the Schengen area, the same labour market rules are not required across the entire EU. “We should accept the differing circumstances in EU countries and enable flexibility for member states as part of a Europe-wide pro-competition, pro-growth strategy”. If the UK can’t build an alliance to repeal legislation, their manifesto goes on to say, “the UK should seek to negotiate a complete opt-out of all existing EU social and employment legislation and to introduce an emergency brake to cover future legislation in this field”.

The TUC has weighed in to warn of the danger the Tories represent behind the smokescreen of the demand for repatriation of powers, saying “The Conservatives want a free market Europe without workers’ rights, controls on the financial sector, equality laws, human rights and so on”.  Given Labour’s past policies and embarrassed relationship with the unions, it is hard to be confident that the party will take a stand on economic and social rights.  But will workers?  Tony Burke, the assistant general secretary at Unite, is quoted in the Guardian as saying, “There are workers – in and outside of trade unions - who take for granted the pro-worker legislation emanating from the EU, as though it has always been there. And there are those who misguidedly express anti-Brussels sentiments without recognising what they could lose.”

 For more on Europe and the question of UK membership, visit our Can Europe make it? debate.

About the author

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88. He is a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls.