In our ‘Europe2025’ series, setting the agenda for the EU in the new term following the coming elections, Peter Scherrer outlines a project for rethinking Europe from a trade-union perspective.
Nearly 700 delegates will be debating the future of our continent at the 14th congress of the European Trade Union Confederation, just before the elections to the European Parliament. Needless to say, trade unions focus on social and economic policy. The congress will formulate the European trade-union movement’s demands and objectives.
Making these trade-union claims part of European policy will however not be easy. The European political landscape has changed fundamentally.
Right-wing populist and anti-European parties are not only represented in national parliaments—they are in government. There is the unanswered question of a unified refugee and migration policy. There is no convincing and effective European response to the dangers of climate change. The further division of Europe into the ‘rich north’ and ‘poor south’ could bring the EU to breaking point. And then there is the pervasive problem of ‘Brexit’.
All this seems to leave little room for the question to which we need a quick answer: how can we reform the European Union so that it becomes better, more transparent, more efficient and more capable of action? A thorough overhaul and reorientation of governance, funding and institutions is inevitable. Trade unions must also participate in this process in the coming years.
The unions need to use all their energy to develop, apply and defend their political ideas in at least two main directions in the coming legislative period. First, they must come up with detailed proposals in all the areas that make Europe more social. These include social policy, labour-market policy, active collective bargaining, employee-participation rights, occupational health and safety and much more.
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Secondly, unions need to make an active contribution to the reconstruction and expansion of the ‘European project’, with equal energy and perseverance. If we want to safeguard freedom, peace, democracy and a tolerant society on a lasting basis, we need to rebuild Europe. If European values and ideals are to remain a reality—and to be reinstalled, where they have already been shrugged off—then we must act now.
Visions need concrete policy proposals to become reality. The trade unions must actively participate in the reform of European institutions and structures. This requires a systematic and well-structured internal debate, to make the common, binding and convincing voice of employees heard in the European political arena. I would like to encourage an exchange of ideas with the following suggestions:
- After the elections and the appointment of the new European Commission, the member states should hold a ‘convention’. The aim would be to develop a new and ambitious EU treaty. The big goal—a European constitution—would (still) be appropriate, but probably not achievable. A fundamental reform of the EU treaty is however indispensable.
- The new treaty should transfer significant powers from the European Council to the European Parliament. It should confine decisions requiring unanimity to just a very few areas, such as military intervention. When European rules and laws are passed, elected MEPs must have the last word, not the council. The parliament should acquire the right to legislate and European commissioners should be directly elected and controlled by it.
- The number of European commissioners should be reduced, rescinding the right of each member state to appoint a commissioner.
- The Committee of the Regions should have a double function, gradually taking the place of the European Council. While still concerned with the regions within the member countries, a second chamber, composed of representatives of member-state governments, would formulate claims and positions vis-à-vis the parliament and the commission.
- The European Economic and Social Committee must be fundamentally reformed–otherwise it risks being crushed by dwindling finances and the constant demand for a ‘much-needed reduction in bureaucracy’. The committee must be exclusively a body of social partners—employers’ organisations and trade unions—and together with the parliament it should have the power to initiate European social and employment legislation. Members would be elected: social elections, which already exist in several member states to fill mandates on boards of health or pension funds, could serve as a model. MEPs would be appointed to the committee to help prepare legislative initiatives in defined social and labour-market policy areas, together with elected members. In these areas, legislation would be valid if the parliament and the committee together voted in favour of it.
- In the context of what has been called the differentiated integration of the union, an ‘invitation to participate’ system should be introduced. If core countries can agree on deeper co-operation—for example, on social, fiscal or defence policies—they should be able to implement that. In a way, they would be creating a ‘political euro area’.
- This is the prerequisite for a euro budget to secure investment initiatives and a European Monetary Fund. Such a common budget requires binding liability rules.
- A Tax Harmonisation Commission should be established to gradually reduce the huge differences in taxation. A European financial-transaction and digital tax should be introduced first. Member states which use low taxation as a business model must be allowed to make the transition to a harmonised fiscal policy—if necessary, with compensatory measures.
- A European ‘financial equalisation’ among member states is needed. In all countries, a legally guaranteed minimum for social assistance, healthcare and pensions should be introduced over 10 to 15 years. Some national budgets would need to be boosted by EU funds—not unconditionally but controlled and bound by rules.
- A Social Progress Protocol could help. It would serve as a regular monitor of social development. Country-specific recommendations would be linked to this. The gradual harmonisation of living and working conditions remains the fundamental motivation for the development of Europe. European cohesion is still the goal of the European community, embodying practical solidarity across the union.
- Making peace without weapons does not seem to work. It requires the construction of a European army. In the coming years, ‘mixed’ units should be created. Operations would be co-ordinated by a European Defence and Security Council. Military technology, such as the Eurofighter, would be produced jointly to common standards. At the same time, active disarmament initiatives should be initiated and vigorously pursued. The EU should take joint responsibility for the safety of all Europeans, including in dealing with terrorist attacks.
- A Council for Sustainable Industrial Production—comprising member-state governments, social partners (in this case industrial associations more than employers’ organisations) and industrialised nations’ innovation and science centres—should be quickly established. This council should be co-ordinated by a European economic commissioner. The goal would be to develop binding agreement on a European industrial policy.
- Successful innovation policy needs clever minds. Education, science and research, as a joint concern, must be a priority in the EU budget to continue to promote the strengths of the regions, thus keeping Europe globally competitive as a business location.
If trade unions want to be actors in shaping a new Europe, they must debate, develop and fight for their positions now. Do we want to be a cork in the current, or the water itself? Leaving Europe’s future to politicians is not an option.
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This article reflects the personal opinions of the author and does not represent the position of the European Trade Union Confederation. In advance of the European Parliament elections, he is working to preserve and develop a free, democratic and social Europe. This contribution is influenced by an intensive debate about the future of Europe with the ‘thorough European’ Reinhard Kuhlmann (former general secretary of the European Metalworkers’ Federation).