United Kingdom: Employment rights may influence outcome of EU membership referendum

The Conservative government wants to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership before holding a referendum on whether to stay in or leave the EU. The Trades Union Congress has warned that if the protections offered by EU employment law are removed, working people will be more likely to vote in favour of the UK’s exit from the EU.


The Conservative government, elected in May 2015 and led by Prime Minister David Cameron, is committed to renegotiating the UK’s relationship with the European Union. This is to be followed by an ‘in/out’ referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, which is due to take place before the end of 2017. This article considers how significant the issue of EU employment rights is likely to be in the renegotiation process and to the referendum.

UK government’s renegotiation objectives

The ‘repatriation’ of the power to regulate employment rights is a long-standing demand of employer organisations, including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and Eurosceptic Conservative Party politicians. However, it is as yet unclear how far this demand is reflected in the Cameron government’s strategy for renegotiation of the UK's EU membership.

The government has not published full details of its renegotiation objectives, which are currently being pursued in talks with EU leaders and other Member State governments, but it has given a broad indication of its priorities. According to the BBC, these are:

  • allowing Britain to opt out from the EU ambition to forge an ‘ever closer union’ of the peoples of Europe;
  • restricting the access of EU migrants to in-work and out-of-work benefits ;
  • giving greater powers to national parliaments to block EU legislation;
  • supporting the continued enlargement of the EU to new members but with new mechanisms in place to ‘prevent vast migrations across the continent’;
  • freeing business from red tape and ‘excessive interference’ from Brussels, and providing access to new markets by propelling free trade deals with America and Asia;
  • protecting the City of London financial markets from EU legislation;
  • creating safeguards to ensure changes in the single market cannot be imposed on Member States outside the euro zone.

Publicly, at least, the government has not emphasised restricting EU intervention in employment law or enabling the UK to opt out from such measures as part of the renegotiation process.

Employers seek EU employment law reforms

Nevertheless, employer organisations have continued to press ministers to negotiate limits to the impact of EU regulation on the UK labour market. The CBI, which wants the UK to remain a member of ‘a reformed EU’, has called for reforms that ensure employment legislation is determined by Member States, not by the EU. The latest briefing on its EU reform agenda proposes:

  • a reduction of the EU ‘regulatory burden’;
  • a moratorium on new regulation ‘where there is a strong argument for national decision-making’, including in the area of social and employment law pending ‘full restoration’ of the principle of subsidiarity;
  • making the opt-out provisions of the Working Time Directive permanent.

Union concerns

Before the European Council meeting on 25–26 June 2015, when the prime minister set out his plans for the referendum promised in the Conservative Party's election manifesto, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the national trade union federation, published an open letter to Mr. Cameron urging him not to seek to weaken the rights of British workers as part of the renegotiation. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady wrote:

We believe that working people deserve some straight answers on the nature of the renegotiation. We respectfully request that you publicly confirm or deny that you are seeking to worsen existing rights and, at a time when casual employment such as zero-hours working is spreading across Europe, prevent the introduction of new ones that would protect workers against exploitation.

Don't take working people for granted by demanding opt-outs from the workplace rights that Europe has delivered. British workers are already some of the least protected workers in Europe, well behind more successful economies like Austria, Germany and Sweden. But British workers do value the protections that they have. Our polling evidence shows that if you take rights away, working people are less likely to vote to stay in the EU.

A poll of 4,000 UK voters published by the TUC in May 2015 highlighted the importance of employment rights for positive perceptions of the EU. The poll, commissioned from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research by the TUC, found that British people are far more likely to want to remain part of the EU if it leads to better pay and rights at work. A majority (55%) of respondents said they would be more supportive of the UK’s EU membership if it did more to help working people get decent pay and conditions. By contrast, fewer than one in four (23%) said they would be more supportive of EU membership if it did more to cut red tape for businesses.

In September 2015, the TUC’s annual conference backed a statement by the TUC General Council warning the government that it cannot rely on unions to continue to support EU membership if ministers seek to weaken workers’ rights as part of their renegotiation agenda.

The TUC has maintained a pro-EU position since the 1980s, largely because of the development of the social dimension of the EU, including extensive EU employment legislation. But the statement says that the TUC will review its position once the full results of the renegotiation and timetable for the referendum are known, and warns the government and the CBI that, should the outcome of the renegotiation involve the reduction of employment rights, ‘pressure to put TUC resources and support in the referendum behind a vote to leave the EU will intensify dramatically’.

Stance of Labour Party’s new leader

The opposition Labour Party elected a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in September 2015. He has also stressed the key importance of workers’ rights in the debate about continued UK membership of the EU. He is seen as the most Eurosceptic Labour leader for decades, and he initially declined to rule out campaigning for the UK to leave the EU if the changes secured by Mr. Cameron undermined 'social Europe'. However, under pressure from leading pro-European members of his newly appointed shadow cabinet, Mr. Corbyn has since conceded that the Labour Party is developing its policy on the issue, and he could not foresee the party campaigning against continued EU membership. In an article for the Financial Times, he wrote that ‘the answer to any damaging changes that Mr. Cameron brings back from his renegotiation is not to leave the EU but to pledge to reverse those changes’.


Given the importance of the issue to employer groups and the political right, it seems likely that Mr. Cameron will want to secure at least some limits to the impact of EU employment legislation on the UK. But he may risk alienating trade unions and sections of the Labour Party whose support could be significant in securing a Yes vote when the electorate is asked in the forthcoming referendum whether the UK should retain its EU membership.



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