The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Luca Visentini, ETUC General Secretary.

I am not looking forward to next Wednesday, when the British Prime Minister will send her Article 50 letter announcing the UK’s intention to leave the European Union. I respect the decision taken by a majority of British voters last June, but it is still going to be a very sad day.

As an Italian, I understand the frustration with the European Union, and I know that in a nation with a history stretching back hundreds of years, you have learnt to live on your own.

But I still feel that the working people I represent as ETUC general secretary across the whole of Europe (including those in countries like Norway and Turkey that are also not members of the EU) have more in common than divides them. My main interest in the Brexit negotiations will be to make sure that working people – in the UK, in Ireland and everywhere else in Europe – do not pay the price.

I am working closely on Brexit – as I do on so many other issues, like pay, climate change and trade – with Frances O’Grady and the British trade union movement she leads. Our shared key priority is the defence of workers’ rights, jobs and living standards.

Working people in Britain are rightly concerned about whether their pay will keep up with rising prices, about whether their job is secure, about what the future holds for the next generation. Those concerns are the same wherever I go in Europe.

Brexit poses an extra challenge, to the working people in Britain who worry that without the European Court of Justice to defend them, and European laws on rights at work, they will become second-class citizens, lagging behind their European neighbours. Those neighbours are worried that if Britain gets left behind, our social model will be undermined, and everyone will lose out in a destructive race to the bottom.

EU citizens living and working in the UK feel added pressures because of a nasty upsurge in racist incidents and because the British government has refused the calls from British unions, businesses and politicians across the political spectrum to give them the right to remain.

But, again, this is not just a problem for people in the UK. I have called repeatedly on the governments of other European Union member states to do exactly the same about the right to remain for the British people living and working in other parts of Europe.

So, settling the issue of the right to stay will be an urgent task for the negotiations that will follow Prime Minister May’s Article 50 letter. Working people should not be used as bargaining chips by either side.

Earlier this month, the leaders of the European trade union movement met in Malta – currently holding the Presidency of the EU – and we agreed with the TUC to call on the rest of the EU to take working people’s concerns on board in responding to the Article 50 letter.

As a result, I have called on the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier (and the European Parliament’s lead on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt MEP) to include in the guidelines that will direct the EU’s negotiating strategy steps which will help working people in Britain and across Europe. Trade unions across Europe will be raising these issues with their governments and their MEPs.

Above all, the ETUC is calling for the Article 50 negotiations to lead to a social and economic agreement that protects jobs, living standards and workers’ rights, and not a free trade deal built on a platform of lower pay, tax and standards. We need a level playing field.

That is why we are urging the EU negotiators to be open about the process rather than conducting the discussions in total secrecy. As a trade unionist I know you can’t do everything in public, but there should be a presumption of transparency unless a strong case for confidentiality can be shown. We will also be arguing for impact assessments to be published setting out what the implications of stages in the process will be for the people of the UK and the rest of the EU.

These negotiations are going to be complex, and our futures depend on them, so I think it would set the right tone to make it clear we want a good deal, not a quickie divorce. That means it might take longer than two years, and there will be a need to agree a transitional period once the issues have been settled. During that transitional period, the current rules should apply, including EU workplace rights and the role of the European Court of Justice.

The negotiations must deal with the specific situation of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, including protecting the Good Friday Agreement. Similarly, the negotiations need to address the situation of Gibraltar.

It is difficult to be pragmatic about such a sad day for Europe, but we owe it to the working people we represent to make sure the risks of Brexit are minimised and mitigated. I want the EU to signal that, if the British people reach a different conclusion, they will be welcomed back into the European Union. But I know this is unlikely, and we must plan for the alternative, making sure that we get the best Brexit possible, for people in every corner of Europe.

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