As Cameron drops social Europe changes, what’s left of his EU renegotiations?

| September 1, 2015 | 0 Comments

David-Cameron-On-EU-and-Britain’s-MembershipOpinion by Denis MacShane 

In this era of topsy-turver politics on Britain is the extraordinary U-turn David Cameron has just done on Social Europe is still an unusual shift in Conservative Party thinking on both trade unions and on the EU.  

‘Social Europe’ has been the main target for British business and Tory MPs over the nearly two decades since Tony Blair reversed John Major’s opt-out and signed up to ‘Social Europe’ regulations and directives.

The cry that Brussels’ red tape was strangling British business is never far from the lips of British business and Eurosceptic MPs. A main target is working time despite the fact that Germans work 1,371 hours a year compared to 1,677 in the UK and Germany seems much more profitable and productive without the long hours culture in Britain.

The CBI while always supporting UK membership of the EU insist it must be a ‘reformed’ Europe.

Indeed the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, blasted the CBI for the their support for a Yes or In vote at their summer conference telling them ‘You’re some of Britain’s most respected business leaders. You know how negotiation works. You wouldn’t sit down at the start of a merger or acquisition and, like a poker player showing his hand to the table, announce exactly what terms you were prepared to accept. It doesn’t work in the boardroom and it won’t work in Brussels.’

At the time Number Ten was briefing that obtaining opt-outs in Social Europe regulations was a Cameron priority. As Bruno Waterfield, the energetic Times correspondent in Brussels, reported: “A big item is the return of the opt-out from social and employment legislation.”           The British Chambers of Commerce has also been vocal in demanding Social Europe changes as a sine qua non for their members’ support for staying in the EU.

As the Daily Mail reported the BCC’s John Longworth wrote to Cameron in June “demanding  changes it wants Mr Cameron to secure, including the ability to ‘opt out’ of more rigid and ‘anti-competitive’ employment restrictions, which dictate everything from working hours to the rights of agency staff.”

Yet anyone who follows EU affairs could have told Cameron that the British Eurosceptic focus on Social Europe had very little support in main EU capitals.  Each EU member state has its own arrangements on union-employer relations often under the heading ‘social partnership’ – a term which has been verboten since the glory days of Margaret Thatcher.

When he was inaugurated as EU Commission President last year  Jean-Claude Juncker declared: “Social Europe will be in the headline of everything we do.” For Christian Democratic European leaders being on reasonable terms with unions comes naturally. In the EU’s dominant, most performing economy, Germany, obsessing with anti-union policies makes little sense.

The TUC leader, Frances O’Grady warned Cameron in the summer that if he insisted on the CBI and BCC agenda and tried make opt-outs from Social Europe part of his terms for winning the EU referendum he would face opposition from trade unions and 30 million employees in Britain.  Already parts of the left, like the influential columnist Owen Jones, are reverting to a 1980s anti-European ideology partly in consequence of the austerity programme forced on the Greeks by German and other EU Christian democrats.

With the TUC conference about to start and a Eurosceptic Labour leader about to be elected Cameron dare not go into the autumn discussions on EU membership with a labour movement – party and unions as well as left opinion-makers – hostile to his efforts to remove Social Europe rights from UK workers.

So it now appears, assuming a very authoritative Financial Times report is right, that he has dropped Social Europe reforms from his renegotiation list. “We aren’t trying to get the full opt-out back,” one of Cameron’s renegotiating team told the FT.   

This makes tactical sense but does rather beg the question what is there left to renegotiate with the EU other than some vague, waffly statements about future language in future treaties when Cameron and the current Brussels and EU leaders he is dealing with will no longer be in power?

Denis MacShane’s book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, will be published by IB Tauris early next month.
@denismacshane Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe Code AN2

 

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Category: A Frontpage, Brexit, Denis Macshane, EU, Opinion, UK

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