Helsinki, 08 September 2006
To be checked against delivery
I should like first to thank our Finnish affiliates (SAK, AKAVA, STTK) for organising this important meeting, and for the opportunity to meet high Government representatives, as one has come to expect in this country, a home to social dialogue.
The Asia-Europe Meetings process is now 10 years old. So this is a good opportunity to take stock, and to look to the future.
As trade unionists, we of course know each other and we have met in this forum on several occasions previously.
At the ETUC, we have pressed for trade union involvement in each of the bilateral and inter-regional relationships that the European Union is developing world-wide. And that, of course, includes Asia.
We cannot underestimate the importance of our relations, and of the need to forge stronger understandings between us.
Europe is too often described as the past, and Asia as the future.
That is a partial view of the world. It suits employers and politicians trying to undermine our social model of decent welfare provision, public services and social dialogue that fosters innovation and economic efficiency.
It is a mercantilist, limited view of the world: one that holds that if one side gains, the other must automatically lose.
I would rather say that we should progress together on the high road. Not on competition based on ever decreasing standards.
And I do not just mean competition between the Europe and Asia, but within each region too. Just look at the massive impact on jobs within Asia of the liberalisation of the textiles trade.
European integration of markets, including the labour market, has demonstrated to us the need for economic and social policies to go hand in hand.
The social dimension of the European single market has been a key determinant in our support for European integration. It has given workers a stake in Europe.
Moves towards regional integration in Asia, which we support, need to take the same path.
And we expect the same approach in the Asia-Europe relationship.
The ETUC subscribes to the EU's aspirations to advance through ASEM sustainable economic and social development, and to promote effective multilateralism with a view in particular of realising the UN Millennium Development Goals.
To advance those objectives, we believe that ASEM needs to integrate better its three-pillar structure so as to multiply linkages between political, economic and social issues.
While we agree that the ASEM process is not yet sufficiently advanced for a fully-fledged institutional structure to be set-up to support it, we think that there is a need to move forward beyond a ‘virtual secretariat' and e-mail networks.
We are appreciative of the role of the Asia - Europe Foundation (ASEF) in giving a human face to the ASEM relationship, and in particular of its recognition of the role of trade unions as agents of understanding between our continents. We ask that it should develop programmes in support of sound industrial relations.
And we do need to go further. In particular we need a dialogue mechanism to deal with the social consequences of globalisation that imbeds trade unions in ASEM processes.
We are glad that the initiative of holding meetings of ASEM Labour Ministers has now got off the ground with the meeting in Potsdam a few days ago. We supported this strongly when it was mooted at our last meeting, in Hanoi. But there should be a structured social partner input.
Meetings such as this one today, although very welcome, should be the starting and not the end point.
I am ready to place a (smallish) bet that the final Declaration that the Heads of State will adopt in a few day's time will mention the Asia-Europe Business Forum. These declarations always do. But what about the workers?
There will no doubt be encouraging words about involving all stakeholders. But we do need to move forward on this.
We are ready to face the difficult issues that arise in the context of trade and investment and to discuss solutions.
We are already seeking to engage in the bilateral EU-China discussions in a positive way to promote human and trade union rights and sustainable development in all its forms. In that context we have, for example, put pressure on European companies to modify their attitude towards accepting a higher minimum wage, with some success.
European companies should behave outside Europe as they are supposed to do inside. They should certainly not act to drive standards down.
We can foresee a step change in EU-Asia trade relations. Even before the Doha cycle ground to a halt, the European Commission had already identified the development of bilateral trade deals as a key priority.
Now that the DDA is on pause, we can expect a European offensive on Free Trade Agreements of a new order of magnitude, towards Asia in particular.
We are not against trade. Indeed we are pro-trade. Not as an end in itself, but as a contributory factor to delivering decent work and economic growth. And as a tool for promoting directly core labour standards.
We have not been successful so far in getting this on the WTO agenda. We must make sure that bilateral agreements do take our objectives on board.
There are precedents - a few. Burma, the most notorious case, has been suspended from the EU Generalised System of Preferences since 1997. In our own region, the same is now to apply to Belarus following another joint ETUC/ICFTU/WCL complaint.
It is worth noting that Peter Mandelson said when he wrote to us announcing the Commission's decision:
“ I am extremely attentive to preserving the credibility of the GSP instrument and the coherence of our policy on the position of basic human and labour rights in third countries”.
You can be sure that we shall be vigilant and active in pressing this coherent approach in all EU trade deals. We welcome suggestions in the Commission that peer review mechanisms and arrangements for public scrutiny of FTAs be installed to enforce commitments.
Of course we would very much prefer in all cases to be able to progress with incentives rather than sanctions. ASEM provides us, potentially, with a mechanism through which to advance these incentives.
We have a joint statement for presentation through the Finnish Presidency to the ASEM Summit that fleshes out this potential.
We hope that the Heads of State and Governments will seize the opportunity so that by the meeting in Beijing, in two years' time, we will have achieved a robust and durable tool that delivers for the workers and peoples of Asia and Europe.