TUC social Europe conference marks ETUC day of action

On 28 May 1997, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) called for a Europe-wide day of action on the theme "Europe must work". The British Trades Union Congress (TUC) used the occasion to hold a half-day conference at its headquarters in London.

The aim of the ETUC day of action (EU9704120N) was to mobilise pressure on the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) (EU9704117F) and the Amsterdam European Council meeting (EU9706133N) for a strong commitment to employment creation in the revised European Union (EU) Treaty.

Europe must work

A report produced for the occasion of the TUC conference on 28 May argued that free market policies had failed and must be replaced by concerted action for employment creation ("Europe must work", TUC report, May 1997). It challenged the claims of the previous UK Government that its policies had achieved a more efficient labour market: "far from making Britain the employment success story of the 1990s, the result has been a deeply divided society". The report attributed recent falls in registered unemployment partly to the exclusion of many unemployed people from the active labour market, partly to the temporary creation of insecure and low-quality jobs in a phase of economic expansion. The Labour Force Survey indicated that the underlying demand for work represented some 15% of the labour force, double the official unemployment rate and higher than the figure in France or Germany. The report reaffirmed the TUC objectives (set out in an earlier statement, entitled Partners for Progress) calling for increased public investment in social, environmental and infrastructural projects, improved training and special schemes for long-term and young unemployed people.

In the context of the EU, the report called for a "relaunch" of social policy to accompany economic integration. With reference to Economic and Monetary Union, it argued that the balance of advantage would lie in UK entry at an early stage, but insisted on the need for a flexible interpretation of the Maastricht convergence criteria and emphasised the importance of including employment and growth objectives alongside the monetary indicators. The challenge facing the IGC was to convince the peoples of Europe that the EU would stand not for growing unemployment but for social progress and employment growth. This would require strong policy commitments and also a strengthened role for trade unions through the social dialogue.

Conference speakers

Opening the conference and presenting the report, TUC general secretary John Monks welcomed the election of the Labour Government and its commitment to ending the UK opt-out from the Maastricht social policy Agreement (UK9704125F). He also noted that the new Government had ended its predecessor's ban on union membership at the GCHQ communications centre. Economic integration, he argued, was widely viewed as an elite project which was generating unemployment and social exclusion. Only a genuine reassertion of the social dimension and a practical commitment to employment creation could "reconnect Europe's citizens to the European project".

Mr Monks was followed by Ad Melkert, Dutch Minister of Social Affairs and Employment and thus a pivotal figure in the formation of social and employment policy during his country's Presidency of the European Council. He stressed that effective measures for employment creation were not only socially and politically essential but also imperative for straightforward economic reasons. "A strong and stable European currency is hardly imaginable if, at the same time, unemployment uncontrollably spirals to 20 million or more," he insisted. For this reason he was optimistic that an employment chapter would be agreed at the Amsterdam summit. More generally he perceived a more dynamic phase in EU social policy, with good prospects for a breakthrough towards a Directive on employee participation within national companies.

The new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, spoke of his Government's commitment to ensure the UK a central role in EU policy-making. Like all other member states, Britain would be concerned to protect what it considered essential national interests, but would attempt to reconcile differences in a constructive manner. His discussion with other European governments had ensured that British reservations on some aspects of EU integration - for example over border controls and a common defence policy - were understood, and on that basis he was confident that Treaty revisions could be agreed at Amsterdam. While avoiding specific policy commitments on industrial relations questions, he reaffirmed the intention to sign the social policy Agreement and also supported the draft employment chapter: "progress toward achieving the monetary targets must be within a framework of increasing jobs and must not be at the expense of employment". His words appeared to suggest a more positive view of interventionist policies than previously implied by Prime Minister Tony Blair, though the subsequent position expressed by Chancellor Gordon Brown was far more reserved.

Commentary

The conference, held within a month of the British general election, signalled the extent of the shift in the political climate. While the new Government appears as qualified as its predecessor in its views of some EU initiatives, it is anxious to be seen to have abandoned the role of permanent critic and to exert positive influence on decisions; and this shift is clearly welcomed elsewhere in Europe, as Mr Melkert made evident. In this context, the prospects for advance on some social policy issues have doubtless been enhanced. Paradoxically, though, ending the UK opt-out could make agreement under the "Maastricht route" harder to achieve if the new Government sustains its enthusiasm for labour market flexibility and is willing to exercise its veto. (R Hyman, IRRU)

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