• ‘Sailing Against the Tide’

  • 06 Dec 13 Posted under: Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • Interview with Bernadette Ségol (Secretary General of ETUC)*

    On a number of occasions you have said that the implementation of structural reforms, particularly those leading to lower wages, austerity measures and the flexibilisation of the labour market on the continent as a whole, were having disastrous effects on the European social model. What are the discussions inside the ETUC in terms of reacting to austerity? What does the ETUC intend to do in the coming period?

    First, regarding austerity, the structural reforms have caused a dramatic increase in the level of unemployment, reduced public expenditure and thus attacked social protection as well as weakened, or even in practice eliminated, the power of collective bargaining and social dialogue. This is why we say that these austerity measures have had a devastating effect. The ETUC does think it’s necessary to return to balanced national budgets and bring public deficits down to size. However, these accounts must be set right over a much longer period.

    The problem with these austerity measures is their radical character that has triggered this unemployment and flexibilisation of labour. For us, acting against austerity means trying to use all the means available to trade unions to show that austerity does not work, that we cannot now be certain that Ireland, Portugal and Greece will not ask for fresh financial assistance. There are some elements of recovery but nothing to make us expect that unemployment will drop or that we will have decent employment. We therefore have to make it clear that the policies implemented up to now are not working.

    This means we are using all the means available to the ETUC: visibility, taking part in platforms that are open to us and, if need be, mobilisation. These are the only channels open to trade unions. In the coming period before the European elections the ETUC will publish a manifesto with precise demands, calling in particular for a plan of investment for decent jobs that can renew growth. We are trying to create the greatest possible national and Europe-wide visibility for our manifesto. For this we will need our members, along with other alliances, to give this plan the greatest visibility and to encourage workers to vote. Abstention could be dangerous and those who are not on our side will, certainly be mobilised. People should vote and question the candidates about their proposals for exiting the crisis. We will see what happens after the elections. I am fearful of how the elections might turn out, but things are still open. We must not start feeling beaten now. I think that developments in the European Parliament will determine what the ETUC does next. For now, Angela Merkel is in power in Germany for another four years. We will see what she does with her new term of office, though she has already indicated what her line will be. So I don’t expect any radical change in German policies. We find ourselves up against a situation in which the governments as a whole – the Council – will not support our orientations. This does not at all mean that we are wrong but just that we must be aware that we are sailing against the tide. We must have the strength to do so.


    In some member states right-wing nationalist and populist movements have grown in strength. Would you say that the approach based on austerity divides the populations rather than contributing to European unity?

    What is dividing the peoples is the point of view that the EU must operate like a market, without trying to protect people or respect the rules of fair competition. What is at stake is more than austerity: It is the idea that there is a big economic steamroller which could crush people. The populist answer is easy. It appeals exclusively to reactions I would call primitive. However, the policies that have been developed have indeed made people fear the European project instead of thinking it could help them. We are up against extreme-right populist movements that have developed to a quite dangerous point. There are serious grounds for anxiety when we see what is happening in Greece. On the other hand, Golden Dawn lost members when they saw what the group was really capable of. I think that there are some people in these movements, who have simply been misled. It is clear that we in the ETUC are totally opposed to extreme-right movements that contradict the ideals defended by the trade union movement. The ETUC’s position is as follows: The European project is not in itself bad. In view of the geopolitical balance, it is preferable for us to work together. However, the project can only work if it has a social dimension. This is our fundamental message. We do not wish to return to old borders – but there must be a solid social dimension if the EU is to survive. That is what has to be done to avoid dividing the populations.


    In a context in which the crisis is continuing and even intensifying in a number of member states, what are the main alternatives being put forward by the trade unions to the present European policies? What European policy agenda should be prioritised?

    Our first alternative is that the austerity measures must be stopped and growth revived. It must, however, be sustainable growth aimed at creating decent jobs. This is fundamental. We want to show that it is possible, that a European investment plan is not unfeasible. At the ETUC we are now drawing up an investment plan for economic recovery and jobs. A number of our members have already worked on it. The Germans of the DGB have put forward a plan for discussion (editors note: ‘A Marshall Plan for Europe’); proposals have also come from the Italians, the Scandinavians and others. In short, we are making a likely successful attempt at establishing a European proposal that will show that by pooling our relatively modest resources, we can, in the end, produce a serious plan for growth.

    Our basis is to say that there are enormous amounts of money piled up in different accounts that need to be invested. This is what we want to deploy. Technically, this means we must have a fund that can produce stocks and bonds to finance projects. This is certainly a bit technical, but it is perfectly feasible. At present it’s not for technical but for political reasons that it is unfeasible. We could do more to mobilise existing funds for growth and jobs, and we want to show that this is quite possible. What is needed is a clear explanation aimed at workers and a technical explanation to show that it is indeed within reach. We are also committed to fight the undermining of the European social model. Social security, public services and collective bargaining are the pillars of social cohesion and also of competitiveness. Germany is managing quite well with this model. So are the Scandinavian countries, not to mention Austria, with only 4 % unemployment, where the level of dialogue and collective bargaining is one of the highest in Europe.

    The European political agenda is quite clear about its priorities. We cannot fashion an EU that is supported by people – which is after all essential in a democracy – if we see the social dimensions as secondary. At present, when I meet European leaders they assure me that the social dimension is indeed important but their view of what it means is limited to employment. I can follow them that far, but the result of their policies in terms of employment is hardly brilliant. Moreover, what sort of employment are we talking about? For the ETUC, going towards mini-jobs and other precarious forms is out of the question. The priority of the European political agenda should be the fight against social dumping, which implies reconsidering the conditions of posting workers. We have a social protocol that affirms that fundamental social rights have priority over economic freedoms. This would be the social dimension for which we hope. Efforts have been made to ensure that public contracts observe collective agreements and that at national level there are no anti-union policies.

    I’m not here speaking about France or Belgium but in some of the new member states actively anti-union policies are being carried out. Some firms do everything they can to avoid having unions. There are governments that say they want social dialogue but for them this is limited to the presence of unions at a meeting. Trade unionism must be given its democratic place. It is an element of democracy and this must be recognised in all the countries. As far as I’m concerned the priority of a European social agenda must be to restore some social balance, to stop making the EU a market place pitting people against each other, which pulls everything down to the lowest level.


    What do you expect from political forces? Do you think you can find some points on which they might support you in shifting the balance of power at the European level?

    The political forces in Europe are not in our favour. On the whole, if you consider the composition of the European Council of Ministers, the political atmosphere does not support the ETUC’s point of view. While it’s true that there has been a change in France and that the new government’s orientation is better, this is not enough. France is not Europe. It is a major country, but no more than that. I ask of the political organisations that are not on our side that they have ears and minds sufficiently open to understand what is happening. This was the gist of my speech to the Council last June.

    Those who are politicians must still pay attention to what is being said in the opposing camp. And I ask of the left political forces that they help us more actively. Some alliances and commonly organised opposition are possible. The German elections are now over – we will now have to see how the other political organisations will get going again. However, the general orientation is far from favourable to what we want. In Germany, we hope for the establishment of a minimum wage by agreement with our members in the DGB. In Germany we are for a guaranteed minimum wage along with our members in the DGB, but Mrs Merkel continues to be opposed to it. We support it as a way of limiting wage dumping and stopping scandalously low wages. The European Commission recently published its report on strengthening the social dimension in the Economic and Monetary Union. We welcomed the introduction of key social indicators in the half-yearly European assessment but deplore that these indicators for changing the rules of economic governance have no binding character. The benchmark indicators proposed do not lead to sanction mechanisms similar to those that exist in the procedures regarding excessive macroeconomic imbalances.

    It is a first step in the right direction but we think Mr Barroso should have assumed the responsibility of proposing something more substantial. Had he done so, he would certainly have risked being told off by the Council, but at least he would have tried. A President of the European Commission should be capable of taking a risk like this.


    Even if austerity plans are being implemented in all the European countries, they come in a variety of forms and different degrees of intensity. This contributes to intensifying the existing cleavages in terms of economic and social development. Don’t these internal differences make the development of alternatives based on pan-European solidarity extremely complex?

    The austerity plans are different because the economic problems are different. It cannot be denied that the financial bubble in Ireland and the real-estate bubble in Spain have triggered a sovereign debt crisis much greater than in Denmark, Germany or Finland. The state of public accounts cannot be ignored. Thus the fact that austerity measures are different is not surprising. I think that what is complicated in European solidarity is financial solidarity – it has to be understood. It is hard to explain to workers from the North that they must look beyond the next five or ten years and that moderate economic solidarity would be a positive benefit for their children and grandchildren. It is hard to get this across and it must not be treated lightly, The ETUC has come out in favour of financial solidarity in the form of European bonds, of project bonds that would be debentures invested primarily in countries that need them most. The necessity of European economic solidarity is hard to explain at the national level, but we must do it – it is part of the notion of solidarity we are defending. Being able to advocate a certain dose of economic solidarity to ensure the EU’s survival is a sign of the ETUC’s maturity. The growing differences between the countries make this even more urgent – the Greeks do not see how they are going to get out of this dilemma. People are quite capable of understanding the need of overhauling the tax system.

    Greek trade unionists freely admit the problem. However we must at the same time give people grounds to hope that these efforts will not be in vain and that they will contribute to getting out of this dead end. However, for the moment hope is not something they can see. Young people are leaving, wages are falling, retirement pensions are being reduced . . . When people cannot see any solution they do not accept the sort of measures that are being taken at the moment. We are in favour of clearly understood European solidarity in which it can be demonstrated that it will benefit us all eventually.


    The Alter-Summit process enabled trade union organisations, social movements, citizens, feminists and ecologists to work together on a project that aimed at the refoundation of Europe. What do you expect from this platform, composed of organisations with a diversity of political cultures? Do you think that the Alter-Summit could be useful in strengthening the feeling of European solidarity between the trade unions and other movements? What would be the next stages in the development of common actions between the trade unions and the social movements?

    The ETUC has always been open to the social movements that shared our social and political orientation. So it is not surprising that we followed the Alter-Summit, which embodied an attempt to bring together movements that want another Europe. I am always very cautious when I speak of another Europe because while we all want another Europe the problem remains of how to achieve it. However, I think that it is in the trade union movement’s interest not only to support theses movements but also to work with them. We have done so and will continue to do so. The ETUC has a specific trade-union function – negotiation – due to its role in social partnership. This differentiates us from more general social movements. We want to keep this specificity, but at the same time, on the issues of austerity and of the need to change the European political line, if we have allies it is obvious that we are going to seize the opportunity to work with them. It is possible that we may have differences of strategic approach, but up to now the Alter-Summit’s general directions have also been our own.


    Negotiations on the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement began in July 2013. What is the ETUC’s position on the appropriateness of this Agreement? Are you for taking part in a broad front to reject it?

    Fundamentally the ETUC is not opposed to commercial treaties. We are not, on principle, opposed to negotiations. What we resolutely do say is that these negotiations and treaties must not worsen or attack the workers’ working conditions and security. It is from this point of view that we are watching the future Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement. A requirement for an agreement with the USA would be that it represents a high standard, with improved norms for international trade. This will be very difficult. However, from that to participating in a front opposing it before the end of the negotiations – no. We are not for operating on that terrain; we are not a protectionist organisation. We do not think that foreign trade is bad in itself but that there are conditions to be met, in particular regarding the protection and welfare of the workers. If it turns out that in the USA-EU negotiations these conditions are not met then we will draw our conclusions when the time comes.

    * The interview was conducted by Maxime Benatouil.

    Translation: by Jimmy Jancovich

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