FNV - Congress
To be checked against delivery
The last time you had the dubious pleasure of hearing my Dutch with a Manchester accent was at the great demonstration in Amsterdam.
That demonstration was a turning point for the Netherlands and a triumph for Dutch trade unionism. Why? Because firstly it showed that unions here matter still, that they can mobilise and that they can strongly affect national debates.
Before the demonstration, some critics were writing you off as old, mostly, men in declining industries. After the Museumplein demonstration, they had to reconsider - and they had to change.
There is another turning point coming up on June 1 when the Netherlands goes to the polls for the referendum on the new EU constitution. All the European focus has been on France where a fierce debate and controversy is in full swing. Yet in the Netherlands, the fortunes of PSV in Europe have commanded more attention than the future of the Netherlands in Europe.
This tranquillity is astonishing to those of us outside the country and, if I may, I want today to issue a wake-up call.
Why? Because the new EU constitution is not an academic issue. It is not something remote and boring.
True it is long and wordy. True it is hard to define as to whether it is more or less integrationist, for more Europe or less Europe. True too that it is not a treaty for a socialist Europe, although neither is it a constitution for a capitalist, liberal Europe.
The central truth is that like much in Europe, it is a balance between different political traditions, right and left, industry and the environment, and entrepreneur and trade unionist.
Yet it is well worth fighting for. It should not be a subject for polite and marginal interest. It should be approached with passion and commitment. And for trade unionists throughout Europe, it is a matter close to life and death of the European Social Model.
Let me explain why by first outlining the central challenge that we all face, we meet at a time of great challenges for the workers of Europe.
I have been in the job of General Secretary of the ETUC for nearly 2 years - and everywhere I go in Europe, there are the same feelings of insecurity and a sense that things are out of control.
In the 15 ‘old’ member states, the fear is of ‘jobs out, people in’. Jobs emigrating through what the French term délocalisation to cheaper locations; and a fear that people are coming in prepared to work under the established terms and conditions.
In the new member states, undergoing huge changes in their post communist era, there is an even bigger sense of insecurity and fear as huge Western companies move in. They create jobs for sure but they also wipe out the local competition and many long established jobs. At the same time, many of their brightest and best are emigrating to work in the West.
So Europe is not riding high at the moment. This sense of insecurity, high unemployment, and worry about the future is the mood of the time - a mood being exploited by the far Right, the racist Right.
This mood is being made worse by some careless politics in member states and the European Union.
The only answer to the problem coming from many of the heads of states and from the European policy makers is a neo-liberal one.
Americanise Europe, more and easier hire and fire, work till you drop, longer working hours, worse pensions, cheaper welfare states, less public services, and weaker collective bargaining.
This is their basic message - and it is a dagger at the heart of every European trade union and worker.
Why, because we are the obstacle to the changes that this new consensus wants to make.
It is us who stand between Europe and a neo-liberal future. Not alone, we have allies, but we carry the central responsibility.
And we cannot rely on traditional friends. The leaders of the neo-liberal approach are perversely the social democratic governments of Britain and Germany.
But these are challenging times and let no trade unionist underestimate what we face.
If the challenges are large, let us, nevertheless, march towards the fights with confidence and determination. There are fights we can win. We are big enough to do it.
We have some powerful weapons of our own.
One Prime Minister in the EU has been quoted as saying - “We all know what to do but we don’t know how to win elections after we have done it.”
That picks out our first ally - democracy - the right to vote is the best deal that working women and men ever got.
The people of Europe expect reassurance and support from their Governments in the face of insecurity.
They don’t expect a Government response which is to make things less secure. They will vote accordingly.
Second, if the referendums in 10 countries are positive, we will have a new constitution in the EU. That will help us.
The fact is that separately we have secured a victory over Bolkestein after a marvellous demonstration in Brussels on March 19 where the orange of Dutch trade unionism was very prominent. That proposal is being fundamentally reconsidered. That is a great achievement by the European trade union movement and our allies. We can’t be complacent. Our opponents might come back at us if the French and the Dutch referendums votes “yes” to the Constitution but it is a huge and important victory. Bolkestein today looks less like Frankenstein and more like Mickey Mouse.
Next, the constitution is not, repeat not, a neo-liberal tract.
The truth is that the constitution will be the best arrangement in the European Union that we have ever had, a big increase on the Nice and previous treaties.
There are welcome commitments on full employment and on social dialogue.
There is the inclusion of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in full in the Constitution. The UK Government has sought to limit its impact but few independent legal experts think that they have.
In the Charter there are guarantees about the rights to organise and to strike. These principles will underpin rights in the older member states and, more importantly, compel their inclusion in any new member states, for example Turkey. This is a massive blow in favour of democracy and trade unionism in Europe and we should not underplay it.
We campaigned for the inclusion of the Charter in the Nice Treaty. We did not succeed. We have now been successful.
The vote in the referendum is really do we prefer the Nice Treaty to the new Constitution. Of course, we don’t. We would have liked some more Social Europe in the Constitution but there is more in it than in Nice.
So let’s recognise victories when we achieve them, and not just dwell on shortcomings. We are in tough times but on the Services Directive - Bolkestein - and on the Constitution - and recently on working time, not least through the good offices of my valued former FNV colleague, Catelene Passchier, and your old vice president, Ieke van den Burg, we have made considerable progress. And I hope that these achievements will be fully recognised by Dutch workers and unions in the referendum.
One other thing - if France or the Netherlands vote down the Constitution, there is no alternative strategy for the EU. It will, for a period at least, be paralysed while 25 countries scratch their heads about what to do next.
All social policy will stop. All environmental policy will come to a halt.
But what won’t stop is the workings of the market, délocalisation, restructuring and privatisation. International capitalism does not need a Constitution. We do - and the present text is not just the best on offer, it is the only one on offer now and in the foreseeable future.
So mobilise like you did on the domestic agenda. The constitution might seem remote but it is central to all our futures.
Talking of futures, I want to pay tribute to Lodewijk and wish him well for the future. Lodewijk has been a creative, combative, and committed trade union leader - one of the very best in my time. My old organisation, the TUC, and I, myself, have benefited from his counsel and I will miss him. As I told the ETUC Executive, Lodewijk has sometimes lived up to my wifes’s maxim - you can tell a Dutchman anywhere but you can’t tell him anything - but Lodewijk has amply and generously compensated. Lodewijk on behalf of the ETUC, I wish you well.
And to Agnes, a warm welcome.
The first woman President of the FNV and a bright, rising star in our firmament. I wish you well too and look forward to working with you as closely as I have worked with Lodewijk.
To you all, thanks for your support for the ETUC. Best wishes for the future.
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