On April 4 some 40,000 trade unionists from all over Europe will march through the centre of Brussels to the EU quarter.
For some Belgians this might seem yet another inconvenience caused by Brussels being home to the EU institutions – like the traffic chaos caused by the arrival of Prime Ministers for European Summits, or the security surrounding the recent visit of President Obama.
But there is a crucial difference – this is not an event from which citizens must be kept away – on the contrary, it is a gathering which you are warmly invited to join and to express your opinion.
So why will trade unionists disrupt everyday life in Brussels on April 4, and what opinion is being expressed?
Our message is simple, and one which EU leaders do not want to hear – that their policies for dealing with the financial crisis is not enough, and have caused a mounting social and economic crisis. Our message is that austerity is not working.
While EU leaders congratulate themselves that the Euro crisis is over, we say that the crisis of unemployment and poverty has yet to be tackled. While EU leaders say we must continue with tough austerity policies, our message is that new policies are needed to get Europe back to work.
We can see this in Belgium where unemployment remains at 8.5%, where youth employment hits almost one in four, and where since the start of the year 50,000 people have been excluded from unemployment benefit. Yet Belgium is better off than many EU countries.
For those lucky enough to be in work in Belgium, wages have more or less kept pace with inflation over the last 5 years. In 18 out of 28 EU countries real wages have fallen. In Greece they have gone down by almost a quarter – and that does not take into account increases in direct taxation! Wages have gone down when adjusted for inflation not only in Spain, Portugal and Hungary but also in the UK and the Netherlands.
Over 26 million Europeans are not work at all. There are 10 million more unemployed than in 2008. The situation for young people is even worse. 7.5 million young Europeans are neither in work, nor education, nor training. Many of the best educated and most enterprising are simply abandoning their home country to look for work elsewhere.
Some have come to Belgium looking for new opportunities. Not everyone in Belgium is tolerant of new arrivals but the impact elsewhere is harder. With youth unemployment at over 50% in Spain, more than a quarter of a million young people left the country last year to seek opportunities in other European countries or Latin America. The same is happening in Portugal, Greece and Ireland which has gone from having among the highest immigration rates within Europe to one of the highest emigration rates. This does nothing for these countries’ long-term prospects.
Europe risks a lost generation - lost to unemployment, lost to migration and lost hope. Freedom of movement within Europe is an important principle and benefit – but it should be a positive choice not an act of desperation.
So what can be done? As a first step it is important for EU leaders to realise that austerity alone will not cure our economic woes – on the contrary high unemployment and falling wages reduces spending, and therefore cuts demand for goods and services. This is obvious in high streets across Europe. One reason for our demonstration on April 4 is to express our dissatisfaction with the economic situation and the economic policies being pursued.
Secondly, there is a need for investment in infrastructure, education and training, and research and development for new industries. The fact that the US invested in growth as well as limiting Government spending in some areas explains why economic growth and job creation is higher in the US.
Energy efficiency and renewable energy, for example, would create European jobs and reduce our spending (and dependence) on importing oil, gas and coal from Russia. But investment in renewables has fallen, and the EU is giving into the electricity production industry by refusing to set a target for energy efficiency for after 2020!
The EU talks about creating a European industrial renaissance but does not have the instruments or policies to enable such a thing to take place. On the contrary, cuts in education and transport infrastructure spending make it less likely.
So a new path is needed for Europe – and that is what trade unionists will demand on April 4. We apologise for the inconvenience, but feel very strongly that delivering our message is of vital importance for ordinary working people struggling to pay their bills, and even more important for those excluded from work!
General Secretary, European Trade Union Confederation