EU is protecting corporations instead of citizens
by Jan Willem Goudriaan
As the protests and strikes across Europe show, people want to see rights and protections for individuals rather than policies supporting corporations in their drive to downgrade wages and conditions - says European Federation of Public Service Unions
European workers and citizens are moving. Mass demonstrations against government austerity measures took place in Spain and Portugal on September 15. They follow on from demonstrations in Thessaloniki on September 8, strikes in Greece on September 12 and a trade union manifestation to defend social protection - and demand a fairer distribution of wealth with higher taxes for the rich in Brussels on September 14. And a new general strike is announced in Greece for September 26, and in the Italian public sector on September 28. A large national action for a fairer society takes place in Germany on September 29 and hundreds of thousands are expected to walk the streets of London to demand a future that works on October 20.
These are the public signs of broad resistance against government-imposed austerity measures that cut public spending and social welfare and which do little to redistribute wealth in fair manner. Such cuts lead to predictable problems. The difficulty of fighting recent forest fires in Spain has been linked to under-resourced forest services, for example. The wages of public service workers have been frozen or reduced in more than half of European Union member states. And governments have announced plans to slash hundreds of thousands of public service jobs from libraries, healthcare, local government and tax administrations.
This is especially galling as corporations and the rich are estimated to be avoiding paying more than €1 trillion annually in taxes, in the EU. Most of the public deficit problems would be solved if governments were to receive the income they are entitled to. It could be used to reduce poverty, build infrastructure, improve public services, and generate green jobs and to improve health and living conditions.
But EU leaders continue with their destructive course of action. For most observers, austerity has been proven not to work. It restrains growth, leads to lower government revenues and a new round of austerity therefore continuing a vicious circle of recession, unemployment and more poverty. And despite the talk of a 'job rich recovery', the underlying philosophy has not changed. The EU is still very much in a corset of a philosophy that favours corporations and capital while seeking to roll-back the welfare state and workers' rights.
Two recent examples illustrate this. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy seemingly favours the interests of capital over those of EU citizens. He published an 'issues paper' on the future of the EU last week. It builds on council discussions to strengthen the EU by way of more political and economic integration. The mainstream media have focused on his proposals for a banking union and a eurozone budget. But no attention has been paid to his proposals regarding the labour market. The president argues for a more integrated economic policy framework that should be made more enforceable.
"This involves a framework that facilitates labour-market mobility, promotes more efficient labour markets and facilitates wage and price adjustments for goods and services in the euro-area," he said. While the focus is here on the euro area, earlier phrases in his paper refer to the 'euro pact plus' countries as well as the EU. The phrase is now well-known code language. It implies that the European Commission does not make proposals to combat social dumping and to fight for precarious jobs. Governments are encouraged to make it easier for employers to dismiss workers by making employment protection more flexible. And to facilitate wage adjustments - you have to intervene in collective bargaining and violate the autonomy of the social partners, lower minimum wages, and promote company-level bargaining by dismantling sector bargaining. And the council president wants to make this "enforceable".
The enforceable framework the president sketches is being played out in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. These countries have been pushed into a corner by the commission, the European Central Bank and often through secret letters to seek reduction of wages and attack collective bargaining. It has taken its most extreme form in Greece, which brings me to the second example. On September 4, a secret email from the Troika - the representatives of the ECB, the commission and the International Monetary Fund - overseeing Greece's austerity programme instructed the Greek labour minister to introduce radical labour market reforms. The proposals included the dismantling of the labour inspectorate which ensures workers health and safety, keeping the cut in the minimum wage for a long period, adjusting pensions downwards further and the widely reported proposal to make working time more flexible - and extend the working week to six days a week. Earlier employers were already permitted to undercut collective agreements and to offer lower pay and conditions.
This is an EU we do not want nor need. Europe's trade unions find such interference unacceptable. It sweeps away the democratic process and undermines the autonomy of unions and employers. The European Federation of Public Service Unions has rejected the austerity treaty, which solidifies the above policies. The council president now wants to further shift the balance of power to capital and employers through new policies and treaty changes. Such a Europe will not have the support of the people. It will have no legitimacy.
Unions and many social organisations have put forward proposals for an alternative strategy to tackle Europe's economic and social crisis. Our proposals include regulating the run-away banking system, taxing speculation and financial transactions, redistribution of wealth, a guarantee for young workers to have a job or training as well as investment in public services, green jobs and in economies currently facing economic problems. We expect from the council president and the commission president JosÚ Manuel Barroso proposals that will ensure that fundamental social rights have priority over economic freedoms. Above all we want a democratic Europe for its citizens. People have hearts and take care of others. Corporations do not. As the continued and EU-wide protests underline, many workers and citizens want a change of direction.
Jan Willem Goudriaan is deputy general secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions