David Cameron is traversing Europe, apparently without much idea of what he wants to achieve in his much-feted renegotiation ahead of a referendum in 2016 or 2017. If the prime minister thinks he can weaken workers’ rights and expect goodwill towards Europe to keep us in the EU, he is making a great mistake.
Mr Cameron’s support for a bill that would weaken the trade unions, and the cutting of tax credits this week, show that employment rights are under attack. One can imagine that the many rights we derive from European legislation, which underpins paid holidays, working time protection and improved maternity and paternity leave, are under threat too.
There is a widely shared feeling that Europe is something of an exclusive club, rather than a democratic forum for social progress. Tearing up our rights at work would strengthen that view. Labour will oppose any attempt by the Conservative government to undermine rights at work — whether in domestic or European legislation.
Our shadow cabinet is also clear 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 with a Labour government elected in 2020.
Workplace protections are vital to protect both migrant workers from being exploited and British workers from being undercut. Stronger employment rights also help good employers, who would otherwise face unfair competition from less scrupulous businesses. We will be in Europe to negotiate better protection for people and businesses, not to negotiate them away.
Too much of the referendum debate has been monopolised by xenophobes and the interests of corporate boardrooms. Left out of this debate are millions of ordinary British people who want a proper debate about our relationship with the EU. We cannot continue down this road of free-market deregulation, which seeks to privatise public services and dilute Europe’s social gains. Draft railway regulations that are now before the European Parliament could enforce the fragmented, privatised model that has so failed railways in the UK.
The proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that is being negotiated behind closed doors between the EU and the US, against which I have campaigned, is another example of this damaging approach. There is no future for Europe if we engage in a race to the bottom. We need to invest in our future and harness the skills of Europe’s people.
The treatment of Greece has appalled many who consider themselves pro-European internationalists. The Greek debt is simply not repayable, the terms are unsustainable and the insistence that the unpayable be paid extends the humanitarian crisis in Greece and the risks to all of Europe. The current orthodoxy has failed. We need a new economic settlement.
We should be grateful to Gordon Brown who as chancellor kept the UK out of the single currency, when other cabinet members were arguing that we should join. From our position outside the eurozone, we can and must influence EU economic reform. We must work with the 11 EU nations that are co-operating to bring in a financial transactions tax. Unlike the current chancellor, who wasted taxpayers’ money in a failed legal case to block the tax, we would participate in negotiations to discuss how we can better regulate the financial sector and raise revenues.
Labour is clear that we should remain in the EU. But we too want to see reform. Last week farmers from across the continent protested in Brussels. The common agricultural policy needs reform so that it does less to subsidise landowners and more to help farmers and rural economies. Europe is the only forum in which we can address key challenges for our country, like climate change, terrorism, tax havens and, most recently, the mass movement of refugees from the violence in Syria seeking sanctuary and hope in Europe. We will not win friends and influence in Europe if we refuse to pull our weight.
Labour wants to see change in Europe that delivers for Europe’s people. We want to be better partners, and put our demands to make Europe better. We will make the case through Labour MEPs in the European Parliament, and our relationships with sister social democratic parties, trade unions and other social movements across Europe.
If Mr Cameron fails to deliver a good package or one that reduces the social gains we have previously won in Europe, he needs to understand that Labour will renegotiate to restore our rights and promote a socially progressive Europe.