As a trade unionist, this is why Britain must vote to Leave

The British left has a proud history of opposing the bureaucratic, undemocratic super state that is the EU. The case for Leave is stronger now than it has ever been.

Enrico Tortolano
7 April 2016

Flickr/Chris Boland. Some rights reserved.

No one is prospering in the European Union these days except the super-rich. Unemployment has rocketed to almost 23 million and under-employment is rife. The jobs that do exist are low paid and insecure; our pensions are being haemorrhaged and our personal debt has reached astronomical levels. We live from week to week, struggling to pay the rent or mortgage, energy bills, phone bills, rail fares and childcare. 

This is a world away from Jacques Delors’ land of milk and honey that he promised to the TUC in 1988. Of course his Social Europe offering was always a fairy-tale destined to have an unhappy ending, but our movement was still recovering from the 1984/85 miners’ strike and the 1986 Wapping dispute. His words were a refreshing change from the cold ferocity of Thatcher’s Tories perhaps, but empty none the less. The price was always too high: giving up democracy, trade union influence and the privatisation of public services through the various treaties, legal judgements and corporate diktats.

Therefore it’s no surprise that political elites and their organisations across the EU are all vehemently opposed to Britain leaving. Why? Because trapped in an anti-democratic apparatus set up by business cabals, unelected elites can continue to crush workers rights, impose austerity and paralyse workers’ opposition. Some argue the EU is a kind of buffer that protects us from the worst excesses of Tory casino capitalism: our employment rights, the equal pay laws and anti-discrimination legislation are proof of this. 

The truth is we were enacting progressive legislation long before we joined the EEC. Anyone who has seen the brilliant 2010 film Made in Dagenham will know the struggle for equal pay was in London, not a gift from technocrats in Brussels. This holds true for rafts of other important social legislation. We also need to clear up the misconception that exiting from the EU will somehow mean that all EU employment laws will immediately disappear. Many of Britain’s law are derived from primary legislation - an Act of Parliament, for example the Equality Act 2010 (EA10). Others are secondary legislation, where statute is enacted to incorporate EU law, such as the 2006 TUPE regulations. What happens to British employment law in the case of an exit vote will therefore depend on us.

For the government to remove incorporated EU law it would have to repeal the European Communities Act 1972. This would result in all the regulations passed under it (e.g. TUPE) being removed. Stand-alone acts of parliament (EA10) would create complications, as it is a fusion of some EU and some non-EU legislation and so would likely remain as it is at present.

In the final analysis, it will depend on organised workers and their unions resisting any changes. Therefore, trade unions need to be ready to take collective action to ensure that workers in Britain retain what minimal rights they have under EU legislation. The government could amend or repeal EU legislation by enabling acts through parliament, but this will be contentious and lead to mass opposition outside the parliamentary process. It shouldn’t be forgotten that through decades of trade union struggle there exists a long and well established history of legislation to protect workers and frame industrial relations in Britain.

There is also the vital issue of EU case law. It is impossible to ignore this, not least because past ECJ rulings have inevitably become interwoven with British legislation and legal decisions. Britain’s courts have incorporated European Court of Justice (ECJ) decisions into their own jurisprudence and to attempt to unravel this will present a variety of problems. The ECJ Viking and Laval rulings illustrate how employers’ rights trump workers’ rights in the EU.

In December 2007 the ECJ judged in the Viking case that the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the Finnish Seafarers’ Union were in breach of Article 43 of the Treaty that gave businesses the right to freedom of establishment in any country of the EU. The Laval case followed, it ruled that employers were not required to observe more than minimum terms and conditions in ‘posting’ workers from one member country of the EU to work in another where more beneficial collective agreements had been previously agreed between the trade unions and the employers. 

In the Ruffert 2008 judgement, the ECJ ruled that contractors were not obliged to observe collective agreements unless it could be proven that they were ‘universally applicable’. It claimed that under Article 49 of the EU Treaty, higher rates of pay would mean ‘an additional economic burden that may prohibit, impede or render less attractive the provision of their services in the host member state’.

These cases make clear that the rights of workers enshrined in both the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, are entirely subordinate to the economic freedom and interests of employers and multi-national companies. There is an urgent need to build solidarity amongst the workers of Europe. The virulent attacks on the workers in Greece and Portugal by an unaccountable Troika of technocrats has shown the EU to be the antithesis of democracy: decision-making is centralised and decisions are in the hands of an unaccountable technocratic elite. Even the former unelected head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, outlined in 2007: “… Its (EU) core is undemocratic and distant, a threat to all those living in its shadow”.

There are some still dreaming of reforming the European Union to protect us against the nasty Tories, but they need to wake up. They are in danger of missing this immediate opportunity to dismantle the EU, wreck TTIP and destroy their neoliberal framework. It seems they are beguiled by the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025’s (DiEM 2025) emergence, in which former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ postmodern rhetoric substitutes for a strategy. This is because he knows that in order to resist such grassroots pressure, the EU Treaties have built-in procedural protections for capital and big business, and a raft of neoliberal policies cemented into the Lisbon Treaty. He also knows the so-called Social Europe sideshow is meaningless, but he has a new book to sell and after-dinner speaking engagements to fulfil.

Moreover, Varoufakis, the Grand Old Duke of Greece, will surely only march his followers up the hill before marching them down again as they begin to recognise the ruthless reality of political life within the EU. New regulation, new structures, new forms of oversight, new limits are all seen as the solution: but here’s the rub, because there are no democratic avenues open to bring about change, the whole strategy relies on encouraging better behaviour from those who created the neoliberal monster. Failure to understand the system, to grasp the nature of EU institutions and neoliberalism itself, underlies all such utopian illusions. Nevertheless, these people relentlessly attack those who understand the EU to be an instrument of neoliberalism. Marina Prentoulis of Syriza UK at the launch of ‘Another Europe’ was indignant: “National governments are pushing a neoliberal agenda too”. Ironically, it is Syriza that spearheads this reform movement: a party currently implementing the EU’s most rapacious programme of austerity and privatisation.

Podemos in Spain - the other great hope of the reformers - seem intent on following Syriza. In his new book, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias warns the Spanish against expectations of real change, after acknowledging that Podemos is not more radical than Christian Democracy in Spain was thirty years ago: “We can’t do more than that… In this chess game, in which we have got almost nothing, there’s not much more we can do … Spain can do a little more than Greece … but the limits are massive.“ So the new slogan of the EU ‘left’ reformers is quite clear: ‘no, we can’t.’

It’s no wonder Britain's workers want out of the EU, but they are fiercely proud of their long history of internationalism. They want to work closely with all those building an alternative to the EU austerity agenda. Real friends of Europe’s workers such as the late Bob Crow and Tony Benn were internationalists who fought relentlessly for equality and justice. Their solidarity didn’t stop at the borders of the European Union. Importantly, they understood that a sense of Europeanism doesn’t stem from a right-wing political construct like the EU, but from a shared history of struggle against power. They had no time for corporate clubs like the EU, ECB or the IMF, who they knew to be part of the global financial architecture designed to undermine meaningful international solidarity amongst workers. 

The EU has never worked in our interests, either here or throughout Europe and the world. The opportunity of the referendum on continuing EU membership offers a real opportunity to say no to austerity and the domination of the banks and to escape the clutches of the most anti-democratic super-state in the world. It is a major opportunity to express our internationalism and belief that another world is possible.

By voting Leave we also have an opportunity to drive a significant split in the Tories and wound the government. If we do not take this opportunity, we are stuck with them for five years. Trade unionists and socialists led the campaigns against joining the European single currency. Imagine where we would be now if Britain had joined the euro. Voting Remain in the referendum will lead to renewed calls to join this single currency club and worsen our situation. 

Syriza failed – and the reformers will fail - not because austerity is invincible, nor because radical change is impossible, but because they are unwilling and unprepared to do what is necessary: to leave the EU. Those who support the reformers are being led to a dead end: the essence of the EU is the exploitation of workers and the orientation toward profit at the expense of every human being and every human need. We can never use the logic of the EU to build new social, economic and environmental relations. Instead, it is necessary to go beyond the EU and to subordinate neoliberalism to the logic of socialism and the democratic state. 

A vote to leave would be very radical because it would express our confidence that a new alternative world is really possible. A resounding No to continued membership of the EU should be coming from the working-class socialist movement. That is why campaigners have formed Trade Unionists Against the European Union (TUAEU). The inhuman punishment of Greek workers should not be duplicated anywhere ever again.


Enrico Tortolano is Campaign Director for Trade Unionists against the EU (TUAEU)

Photography by Chris Boland:

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