The Strange Illusion of a ‘Social Europe’

6 March 2004

The Strange Illusion of a ‘Social Europe’

For many years now the thinking of the left in Western Europe has been dominated by an enormously optimistic view of the social policy of the European Union. Trade unions and left parties told everyone that we were on our way to a "Social Europe", one in other words which distributed available work fairly; a Europe which would offer security even to workers with little education, to the unemployed, to those who cannot for whatever reason work, to young people just starting out on working life, to mothers with little experience of work outside the home, to pensioners. As long as the capitalist west of Europe had to compete with an east ruled by communist parties to win the approval of working people, the right wing had nothing to say against this.

Speech by Erik Meijer, MEP for the SP, at the International Conference of Left Parties in Prague, 5-7 March, 2004

Erik Meijer

Founded in 1973, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has united national trade unions which historically belonged to three different world umbrella organisations. These three groups were associated in each case with a single political current. There were then separate unions influenced by social democrats, Christian democrats and communists. The establishment of ETUC was the result of an awareness that since the ’60s power had shifted towards the European level, that firms were increasingly likely to be subsidiaries of big international concerns and that the trade union movement needed to combine its forces in order to play a role on this super-national level.

From the beginning ETUC has been characterised by optimism, as is shown by its slogan "More Europe, a Social Europe". Its main activity consists of talking to the institutions of the EU and with the European employers’ organisation UNICE, both in the EU’s Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC) and elsewhere. This is, of course, a corporatist model based on a view of the common interest of labour and capital in place of a struggle between the classes, a model which has its roots in conservative-catholic state ideologies and the Italian fascism of Mussolini.

It is not only the trade union movement which is characterised by this kind of optimism. In many organisations there exists a sort of confidence that the handing over of ever more national competencies to the EU will of itself lead to better policies. The trade union movement believed that the EU would bring about a social Europe, the environmental movement that the EU would clean up Europe and consumer organisations that it would provide better protection to the consumer. Everyone put their faith in fine words written by the European Commission or the European Parliament, even if in practice they had little practical significance.

The European Union sticks its nose into everything, it’s true, but that is certainly no guarantee that it improves things. In the case of social policy this is doubly the case.

Under existing relations of power it would be illusory to expect that uniform rules governing unemployment benefits, a minimum wage, working hours, the situation of people unable through sickness or disability to work, or pensions would lead to a harmonisation around the standards set by the best member state.

The trend is in reality not towards a ’Social Europe’ but in entirely the opposite direction. The social and economic model of the Soviet Union and its allies is no longer around to offer the threat of competition and many workers do not bother to participate in European Parliamentary elections. In the EP elections of 1999 the social democrats, who had until then formed the biggest political group, suffered a heavy defeat, losing out to ourselves - the GUE-NGL - and the Greens, but also to the right. The European People’s Party, a combination of Christian Democrats and conservatives, is now the biggest group in the EP, and together with other right wing forces forms a majority.

This majority for the time being has accepted the existence of codes of conduct relating to employment. The EU produces whole series of documents repeating what are in reality self-evident rights such as:

  • equal pay for men and women
  • no racial in relation to employment
  • everyone should have some kind of pension
  • trade unions must be legal and their role as a negotiating partner must be respected

Such texts, however, go no further than what is generally acceptable.

This majority does indeed want to see changes, but these changes would not make things better for workers. They include a reduction in the cost of labour, a reduction in the number of workplaces, a reduction in the number of people who have a right to unemployment benefits, and a reduction in the number of pensioners. Employers don’t want to have to cover people’s social security payments, nor do they want these costs to be taken on by the state, because this will mean that taxes cannot be lowered. Only employees who are, by their definition, the best and most adaptable, can expect to be offered secure jobs.

In addition what they want to see is a more flexible labour market, one where it is easier to sack people and where workers have fewer rights, where jobs are precarious, for example with contracts which give no guarantee as to how many hours per week will be worked. They want to see more forced migration, where, as in America, people will be required to move thousand of kilometres to places where more work is available, severing them from family and friends. And of course in multilingual Europe the problems associated with this are even greater than is the case in America.

Furthermore, only two groups of workers are in reality mobile, those at the bottom of the pile and those at the top. On one side are people who must content themselves with badly paid, unattractive jobs in poor working conditions. They are brought in in order to exert downward pressure on the wages of indigenous workers, a situation which creates conflicts. On the other are people with a high level of education and training, for example in computers, electronics, the chemical industry or the fight against disease. This can lead to a ’brain drain’ in which the country which has given these people their education loses them to countries with stronger economies.

For 15 years the EU has been moving in a neoliberal direction. This means that free competition prevails, while national laws protecting work and environment can be overruled by EU rules. The European superstate uses force to protect the freedom of the privileged. In the background in the ’90s an almost unknown but powerful organisation played a major role: the ’European Round Table of Industrialists’. This organisation forced the introduction of the ’single currency’, the euro, and has been active in the education and acquisition of allies in the new eastern member states.

The Europe of capital has existed for a long time, but a social Europe never has. In March 2000 the summit of government leaders came together in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. On the initiative of the former left wing government of social-democrats, greens and communists in France the idea was to discuss what steps could be taken towards meeting the trade unions’ demand for a ’social Europe’. However, the final conclusions of the then majority social democratic prime ministers have nothing to do with a 35-hour working week, with reducing income inequalities, with social security, minimum wages, improved social allowances, more jobs in public service or a lower age for pensions. No, they concern a withdrawal of elected authorities from the economy and from social provision, as well as the stimulation of economic growth by means of lowering taxes and cutting collective spending. The main conclusion of Lisbon was that Europe must become the world’s most competitive economy. Europe must win the struggle against America and Japan by being cheaper, more inventive and more flexible. However , with precisely the same instruments America en Japan also want to win this struggle to be the most competitive. Instead of "Proletarians of all countries, Unite!" Europe says: "Proletarians of all countries, destroy your foreign brothers and sisters by competition !"

This struggle for competitiveness is also financed by cuts in public service and by continuing the selling off of remaining publicly-owned enterprises. Post, telephone, energy and public transport must be forced to be sold off or tendered to private companies, in many cases to rapidly growing multinational concerns. An important aim of this privatisation is to break the power of the trade unions and force down wages by from 30- to 40 % by making every job insecure. This is the means by which full employment will be achieved and social security consigned to the past. Social democrats and Christian democrats are still trying to persuade us that we must first achieve this neo-liberal Europe before we can reach a ’Social Europe’. In their definition a ’social Europe’ is nothing more than full employment, than more jobs. This aim could be fulfilled by employees working to exhaustion and by lower wages, lower taxes and weakened protection of workers’ rights and the environment. That is a total deception. In the meantime everybody can see that the programme of worsening is a big success, but that the promised improvements are nowhere to be seen. Growth contributes less to a solution for the people with the lowest income than would a more equal division of what we already have. In 2001 I succeeded in blocking an important part of this ’Lisbon Strategy’ by mobilising in the European Parliament a majority of 317 against 224 votes against the forced privatisation of urban and regional public transport.

More freedom for giant multinational corporations (MNCs) means for the most part that the strongest win; but that also generally means that the worst win, companies that know how to produce and sell goods for the lowest possible price: those in other words which pay the least attention to the protection of their workforce, of the environment, of the welfare of animals and so on.

The European Union is also trying to reduce the state’s role in pension provision. The argument for this is that there is an increasing number of people living longer and this will make pensions unaffordable, and that state pensions are no longer suitable in a situation where state authorities are increasingly withdrawing from more and more areas of the economy. Most EU member states, and above all France. Spain and Italy, pay pensions out of their annual budget. Only the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden reserve funds in advance to enable them to pay pensions; for the others it would be, through the demands of the Stability Pact, designed to preserve the value of the euro, difficult to introduce such a system.

The policy of the EU is thus to force people to work for longer, until they are over 65, and to give a greater role to collectively regulated occupational pensions for employees and to private pensions managed by insurance companies.

The European Parliament has decided that moneys reserved for occupational- and private pension funds can be made available to enterprises for use as risk capital. It is not the interests of those who have a right to these pensions that here prevail but the wishes of the employers. For employees and small business people it means only more bureaucracy, less security and a lower pension.

The 12 EU member states which have adopted the euro as their legal tender are obliged not to incur an annual deficit of more than 3% or a total debt of more than 60% of the budget in any given year. This Stability Pact is misused as a means forcibly to reduce public spending on such things as health care, education, public transport, social housing, the environment and social security. Because of these limits there is also no money for major European projects, such as the development of a knowledge-based economy or the enlargement of the structural- and cohesion funds for the new member states with a lower standard of living. It is nevertheless the case that this money will be sorely needed so long as the new member states are in great measure dependent on the export of cheap agricultural products and cheap mined products while having to import expensive high technology. This situation is making them the poor backyard of Europe, comparable to Mexico in relation to the US, to which country it is bound by the trade agreement NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). However, the richest member states have also, because of the Stability Pact and the lowering of taxes, found themselves short of money, and will therefore profit as much as possible from the EU funds.

There is currently a huge row going on as to whether the EU needs more money or whether we want to spend less on it. Following enlargement to the east the European Commission is seeking a 50% budget increase. However, six member states, the EU’s big financiers, want to limit spending by reducing the current maximum budget of 1,26% of GDP to 1%. Yet money for solidarity with the poorest regions, which will soon mean those of the east, is desperately needed. This money could also be found, however, by ending great prestige projects such as the space satellite Galileo, by putting a stop to the unnecessary distribution of subsidies to the richest countries, as well as to their use in replacing good rail connections by motorways and ever greater airports and the construction of a European intervention force for operations outside the EU’s territory. More money would also be available if we stop paying farm subsidies to big corporations, tackle fraud in the EU institutions and cut the needlessly high costs of overpaid members of the European Parliament. A combination of such measures would realise around 20 or 25 billion euros, money which could then be spent more usefully.

Within all of these limitations the European Parliamentary group of the GUE/NGL, of which I am a member, by various means including making counter-proposals and questioning the European Commission, has given support to the extra-parliamentary struggles of working people as well as to disadvantaged groups and impoverished groups. Yet it could scarcely be more obvious that there is, at the moment, no offensive aimed at bringing about a ’sociaal Europe’. On the contrary, what we are involved in is above all a defensive struggle against neo-liberalism, militarism and the destruction of the environment.

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