Scottish Trades Union Congress Conference (STUC)

Glasgow, 29/02/2008

To be checked against delivery

President, delegates, this is an important conference on an important topic.

I don’t just mean the Lisbon Treaty. I mean the place of Britain and Scotland in the European Union because that is the context that must shape the debate on the Treaty.

As many of you will know, I have long been a convinced European believing that Britishness is not enough whether on casino capitalism, trade rules, climate change and energy security, and trade union and employment rights. And now with an EU of 27 and 500 million people the case gets stronger, not weaker, and the case for proper democracy too at European level gets stronger.

In part, my commitment reflects personal experience. My wife is Dutch and as I became a reasonably regular visitor to the Dutch relatives, I saw the enormous strides that the core EU countries – the committed countries – were making together. Cities that we could have died for. Welfare states that made ours look threadbare. Health services open to all with much higher standards and spending than the UK’s, Urban transport systems that were modern, clean and fast. Environmental standards that were in front of ours. Industrial relations systems which were more about solidarity than vigorous sectional interest. Strong productivity and lively and stylish economies. That’s still the case. Glasgow may be miles better than it was but if you get a chance, take a look at Milan or Barcelona or Hamburg and realise how far our cities have to go.

The EU is now one third of the world’s economy. The enthusiasts, like Ireland and Spain, have done best; the poor countries generally have closed the gap on the rich. The eurozone is not looking anything like so sick, now that the problems of the USA and UK have exposed our dependence on financial services and house price inflation have left us looking vulnerable – just look at the exchange rate.

The European Union, if it gets its act together, is a big enough entity to get a grip on global capitalism and its excesses. National politics by contrast look increasingly feeble.

The orthodoxy especially in this country is that the market must be free and that entrepreneurs must be given full licence. Otherwise they might emigrate. That’s one weakness of the nation state.

Another is that 50% of British people who work for public limited companies now work for foreign-owned companies, a big increase in the past 20 years. This sell-off of UK assets, and, in some cases like Airbus, a sell out of British interests, is watched helplessly by the Government who can only say, rather lamely, that it is a matter for the shareholders.

And do the Eurosceptics have a word to say on any of this – dealing with tax evasion, the takeover of the UK by foreign capital, the gambling mentality which is rife in financial services, private equity and hedge funds, the activities of sovereign wealth funds run by undemocratic countries? Not a peep from them about any threat to national sovereignty from these dangerous sources.

Instead they, anorak like, paw over the Lisbon Treaty and any move by the EU to get a better grip.

So they focus on do we need a referendum on whether Europe has a President of the Council of Ministers every two and a half years rather than six months; whether we have a slightly more coherent foreign policy than now (that might have helped a bit, by the way, on Iraq), whether qualified majority voting, should be extended so that the EU is not paralysed like the old 18th century Polish Parliament which could only take a decision by unanimity, and so on. These, despite Labour promises on referendums which frankly are Labour’s problems, are not referendum matters. There are modest changes, and adjustments designed to handle the enlarged EU.

I rather regret that the Eurofederalists did not do better. Giscard d’Estaing may have put a brave face on his defeat in the drafting convention on the original Constitution Treaty by claiming, ironically by the way, that there would be statues in every EU village of the founders of a new constitution.

But in drawing up the old EU Constitution, the reality was reflected much more in the staff work of the secretary Lord Kerr, a canny and cautious Scottish civil servant.

So what’s in it for the Unions? I don’t get carried away. The old East German constitution was the best charter of workers’ rights ever but the country was no workers’ paradise. In fact it was the only country I know that erected walls to keep people in.

But the Lisbon Treaty has modest advances. Our best part - the Charter of Fundamental Rights - becomes legally binding with rights to bargain and to strike. That’s the good news. Now the bad news. The UK Government has negotiated an opt-out from this part of the chapter – and, to add insult to injury, argued, unsuccessfully, before the European Court of Justice recently that the right to strike is not a fundamental right. I’d prefer Ian Davison to concentrate his sharp brain on those points rather than having sleepless nights dreaming about the threats posed by Europe. And can he campaign too against the British led block on the Temporary Agency Workers Directive which would give much needed equal pay and conditions to the vast army of temps. The main trade union problems are closer to home than Europe.

Back to the Lisbon Treaty, there is also a recognition of the role of public services and of Europe not being simply an economic area but also a social one. These could be useful in some privatisation disputes.

But Europe can be its own worst enemy. In two recent legal cases – Laval and Viking – the European Court of Justice has made decisions which will make it harder to deliver trade union support for the EU. Trade unionists around Europe will be saying that the EU, which hitherto has generally upheld workers’ rights – in contrast to the USA, and sometimes, sadly, to the UK – has now taken a neo-liberal anti-trade union turn. The right to strike seems now to be restricted in circumstances where an employer imports cheap foreign labour, and our right is less important than the employers’ ability to use the freedom of movement provisions. I simplify for brevity but it is a serious setback and the ETUC will develop its fightback next week.

Europe and its trade unions will survive this decision by the ECJ but Europe has suffered a self-inflicted wound, though, frankly, I fail to see how defeating the Lisbon Treaty – and with it the Charter – will make the situation better. They must move to take Social Europe out of the freezer and strengthen workers’ rights in the face of globalisation and the growing power of reckless, financial capitalism and its overpaid executives. And Gordon Brown, John Hutton and rest of the Government must answer the question “whose side are you on?”. And British unions, in my view, need to fight on the right issues at the right time, and just as in the Delors/Thatcher era, that includes fighting for a strong social and effective European Union and for the best EU standards for British workers with no opt outs, no red lines excluding us from fundamental rights and no second class status. That’s the real issue here this morning.