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Six myths about the European Union

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Left wing supporters of the European Union (EU) predict disaster if Britain votes to Leave. They say workers’ lives would get harder and racism would rise. But what would really happen? Socialist Worker looks behind six myths
Issue 2497

1. Wouldn’t we lose our employment rights?

Union leaders sometimes claim that the EU is the only thing standing between unscrupulous bosses and workers’ rights.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady claimed, “It’s the EU that guarantees workers paid holidays, parental leave and equal treatment of part-timers.”

In reality, it was the unions that O’Grady leads that won those rights.

Their struggles mean that some British workplace legislation, such as health and safety, is stronger than the EU demands.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 came out of a mass upsurge in union struggle that toppled Edward Heath’s Tory government.

It’s been under relentless Tory attack. But the EU’s “Better Regulation” agenda won’t give workers more protection. It makes clear that “suppressing unnecessary administrative burdens” is crucial for business.

That’s because the EU is no friend of workers’ rights—and that doesn’t only apply in countries such as Greece where it’s imposing brutal austerity.

It is based on “four freedoms” for bosses. The EU guarantees them the right to set up business, provide services, move capital and hire labour across its member states.

There was no real mention of “social rights” in the Treaty of Rome of 1957 that founded the EU. It only began adopting some weak measures to sugar the pill.

EU “directives” have little impact on workers’ terms and conditions, and do not protect union rights. Unfair dismissal rights and the minimum wage have nothing to do with the EU.

If workers’ rights clash with the “four freedoms”, the EU always comes down on the bosses’ side.

In 2007 Finnish ferry company Viking tried to operate from neighbouring Estonia to get around a union agreement. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in the bosses’ favour, saying that workers taking action could restrict Viking’s “right” to relocate.

British Airways bosses used the ruling to stop the Balpa pilots’ union striking against plans to set up a subsidiary with worse terms and conditions.

Our rights are under attack from the Tories and the EU. Only workers’ struggles will defend them.

Doesn’t the EU give us equal pay and holidays from work?

Women strike for equal pay

Women strike for equal pay (Pic: Ray Smith)

We don’t have equal pay in Britain—or in the EU. Women workers are paid on average 14 percent less than men, according to official figures.

The Equal Pay Act, which formally guarantees equal pay, had nothing to with the EU. A Labour government introduced it in 1970 after women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant in east London went on all-out strike.

The Equal Pay Act is now largely superseded by the Equality Act of 2010—legislation that would remain after a “Brexit”.

Much of EU employment law has also been implemented through British legislation, and is often stronger than the EU requires. For instance, the EU’s minimum annual holiday period is four weeks, yet in Britain it’s 5.6 weeks.

EU directives on maternity leave guard against some discrimination and all women are entitled to

14 weeks’ leave. But parents in Britain can qualify for up to 50 weeks of shared leave, 37 of which are paid.

The Tories and the EU both talk up the importance of “competitiveness”—meaning they want to level down these rights. The bosses will attack them whether Britain leaves the EU or not.

We can’t rely on any bosses or rulers, in the EU or elsewhere, to protect ordinary people. The key to defending workers’ rights and resisting racism is struggle.

Wouldn’t racism get worse without the EU?

Some see the EU as a bulwark against racism. But EU leaders are using racist laws to condemn desperate refugees to death—and are whipping up Islamophobia.

Neoliberal policies imposed by the EU have helped create a climate where racist and fascist groups can grow.

The EU and other institutions have demanded round after round of austerity in Greece, generating anger and despair among ordinary people. This gave the fascist Golden Dawn a chance to organise by directing that anger and despair against refugees.

Neoliberal policies encouraged by the EU in Hungary helped lay the ground for the fascist Jobbik party to make gains.

In Britain being in the EU has not determined levels of racism.

When Britain joined the EEC in 1973, both the Nazi National Front and racism were on the rise. They were pushed back by Anti-Nazi League mobilisations and black and white workers struggling together.

Membership of the EU today has not stopped a rise in racism.

A powerful movement that unites Muslims, migrant workers and others—and stands with refugees—can push back racism.

Doesn’t the EU guarantee our human rights?

Since 1953 Britain has recognised the European Court of Human Rights. The Human Rights Act makes its judgements binding in Britain.

The Act is British law—it has nothing to do with the EU.

The Court is a body of the Council of Europe. It is nothing to do with the EU.

It has 47 member states, almost half of them non-EU members.

Other human rights provisions come through international treaties.

Britain is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Labour Organisation, among others.

None of these have anything to do with the EU.

Nor do measures won from struggle inside Britain, from the Magna Carta onwards.

Some measures came through the EU, against workplace discrimination for example.

They are now British law and won’t be repealed if we leave the EU.

The problem with all these measures is that governments ignore them whenever they get away with it.

Whether inside or outside the EU, the only rights that count are the ones we fight to uphold.

Wouldn’t all the immigrants be kicked out?

Anti-immigrant racists such as Ukip face widespread opposition

Anti-immigrant racists such as Ukip face widespread opposition (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Bosses need European migrants —and if Britain left the EU, they would not be kicked out.

Despite hype about welfare, EU migrants take less than 2.5 percent of unemployment benefits. That’s because most are workers.

Mass deportations or even a tough visa regime would risk economic disaster. So there is immense pressure to keep the status quo.

The majority of tourists come to Britain from Europe, a market bosses don’t want to endanger. Nor can the Tories afford to risk getting two million British migrants kicked out of other European countries.

So what would change if Britain left the EU?

Almost two thirds of foreign nationals in Britain are from outside the EU and would be unaffected.

For EU nationals there would be two possibilities. Britain could—like Norway, Iceland and Switzerland—opt to join the EU’s “internal market” as a non-member.

Otherwise it would have to negotiate new deals with EU countries. These can in theory take a wide range of forms.

Migrants from many African and Asia countries face harsh restrictions. But visa-free travel is allowed from Brazil, and Irish immigrants already have more rights than other EU nationals.

It’s true that the Tories and the Labour right want to restrict migrants’ rights to claim benefits or use public services.

But this is a battle we face whatever the vote. David Cameron is making the case to Remain based on demanding such discrimination inside the EU.

He’s pushing ahead with attacks on non-EU migrants, with nasty visa changes next month and a toxic Immigration Bill going through parliament.

Socialist Worker calls for lifting all immigration restrictions—but that’s against EU rules.

The EU’s not perfect—but shouldn’t we stay in and reform it? 

European union institutions are designed to be undemocratic. The EU is even harder to reform than national governments are.

Measures enforcing the market are hardwired into its constitution. For instance, nationalisations in one country of firms based in another is outlawed.

These measures are part of treaties between 28 countries. While it is possible to get reforms, to scrap any completely would require the agreement of all 28.

One of the most controversial measures in the proposed TTIP trade deal is already present in the EU constitution.

Subsidies, regulations or even public “monopolies” such as the NHS can be challenged by private companies or vetoed by the unelected European Commission.

The European Parliament has almost no real power. Last month it voted for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Nothing happened.

The European Council of heads of government has more sway. It can make some decisions by qualified majority vote. But fundamental changes require unanimous agreement.

Britain’s rulers fight bitterly against any attempt at progressive reforms at home.

But to force reforms on the EU would mean overpowering their resistance too.

Meeting debates the case for a EU left exit

Around 80 people joined a “left exit” meeting in central London on Wednesday of last week. It was organised to put forward the socialist case for leaving the European Union (EU) in the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership on 23 June.

The meeting brought together the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Indian Workers Association (Great Britain), Counterfire, the Communist Party and the RMT union, among others.

Joseph Choonara from the SWP opened the meeting by attacking the myths put forward by some defenders of the EU. He said, “The myth of free movement is unravelling in country after country. If you’re Alyan Kurdi you have no freedom of movement. Joseph slammed the EU’s “illegal” and “immoral” deal with Turkey.

The EU is one of the main drivers of neoliberalism and privatisation. As writer Tariq Ali said, “Forget removing privatisation if we’re in the EU—that’s why the labour movement and the Labour party should be campaigning against the EU.”

Lindsey German from Counterfire said, “Both wings of the argument contain racists. We have to deal with the substantive arguments.”

If the vote was to leave the EU, it would create a further crisis for the Tories. There was some debate from the floor on whether or not to campaign with the right.

John Hamilton from Lewisham People Before Profit said, “I’ve been on the same stall with Ukip people.”

But Harsev Baines from the Indian Workers Association (Great Britain) said, “I could not campaign alongside Ukip.”

Joseph said, “I’m implacably against campaigning with Ukip. We need a united campaign to put forward a principled anti-racist, internationalist case.”

Liz Payne, chair of the Communist Party and Eddie Dempsey from the RMT national executive also spoke.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans

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