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26 January 2006 Edition

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Building from the Ground for a Social Europe

Building from the Ground for a Social Europe - BY PETER GUSTAVSSON

Sweden has had Social Democratic governments for 65 of the last 74 years, and nearly 85% of workers are organised in a trade union. The Labour Movement's political dominance has resulted in a Swedish social model based on collective bargaining, universal welfare and high levels of employment. The success of the Social Democratic welfare state has led to increased equality between the classes. Sweden is also proud to be the most gender equal society in the world. Despite these successes, however, we have a long way to go to achieve complete equality.

During the last 25 years, the international wave of neo-liberalism, matched with periods of right-wing governments, has put the Swedish social model under pressure. After Sweden joined the EU in 1995, the adoption of EU policies has meant that important victories for the Labour Movement have been rolled back. Key priorities of the Swedish social model have stood against the principles of a single market that puts competition first and foremost. Adaptation to the EMU convergence criteria has also led us to converge with a liberal economic policy that accepts unemployment as a measure to hold inflation down.

During these ten years of EU membership, we have been fortunate to have a Social Democratic government that has been quite successful in avoiding the policies that would have inflicted the worst harm to the Swedish social model. The impact of EU directives and institutional pressure has been somewhat countered by trade unions and social movements fighting to ensure that we preserve what we have achieved.

However, a shift to a right-wing majority in the Swedish parliament would change this. The Swedish conservatives lost the ideological battle of the 1990s and have now retreated from neo-liberalism to a Swedish form of 'compassionate conservatism' that pays lip service to the Swedish social model. This new rhetoric has helped the right-wing achieve a position whereby they have a plausible chance of winning the next general election in September 2006, which would put them into power for the first time in 12 years.

The extremely pro-EU stance of the established right-wing parties in Sweden is based upon the idea of using the EU to break down social democracy by the back door. That is why Svenskt Näringsliv, Sweden's CBI, invested around £50 million on campaigning to join the euro in the 2003 referendum. The leader of the Swedish Conservatives' campaign for the euro, Gunilla Carlsson, said that it would lead to more conservative policies in Sweden. Analysts from business organisations pointed out that with the euro, the government would be forced to de-regulate the labour market and to cut the very taxes that make our welfare system successful.

Since the right-wing has now taken a majority in the EU Council, the European Parliament and the EU Commission, the possibilities to tear down the Swedish social model through the EU have increased. Two clear opportunities have opened for such a development. The first, the Directive on Services, is now well known all over Europe but it was Swedish and Belgian unions who first rang the alarm bells on the consequences for public services and collective bargaining. The directive is a crude attempt to undermine those countries in Europe that have made advances on health and safety legislation, and collective bargaining rights for workers.

The second opportunity for the right comes through the case of Latvian company Laval un Partneri which won a contract to build a school in Vaxholm close to Stockholm in 2004. The company brought in workers on poverty pay and outside the terms of collective agreements which other building workers receive. The builders union, Byggnads, launched industrial action, including blockades and secondary picketing, in order to support the workers and to protect other builders from pay cuts. The Swedish Labour Movement won that battle, but now the issue of whether our unions acted legally has been referred to the EU's Court of Justice.

Internal market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy has said he will argue that the unions acted unlawfully and that the company should be paid compensation. He will argue that in taking action to protect collective agreements negotiated with the employers, unions were acting illegally by blocking 'freedom of movement' for businesses. If the ECJ rules against the unions, the company will seek compensation for the financial costs of strikes.

We don't know how the case will be resolved, and there will certainly be a huge uproar if it goes against the unions. Even if it is won by the trade unions, the fact that the EU's leaders take sides with social-dumpers, wage-cutters and union-busters tells us a great deal about the kind of Europe they want.

The Vaxholm conflict is an historic court case for Swedish unions and it prompted Erland Olausson, deputy chair of LO, the Swedish Trade Union Council, to say that if the ECJ decides against the unions "the conditions for Swedish EU membership would disappear and then LO must reconsider its support for the EU. We can't be in the EU if it means the Swedish model falls apart".

Swedish voters are wary of giving away too many powers to the EU. That much is obvious from our referendum on the euro, in which 57% of voters, and a majority of social democrats said 'no'. But it isn't an isolationist streak in Swedes that makes us cautious, nor even a superiority complex. We know that we have much to gain from co-operation with other European countries. We have a very rational basis for our caution- we think that we lose out by giving away power.

Sweden has achieved our strong welfare system, strong economy and a strong place in public life for working people through the concerted efforts of social democrats, working side by side with the trade unions. Throughout our history you can match the strength of the Labour Movement with the advance of progressive policies. Democracy itself was won by unions and other progressives.

Decisions should be made where democracy is at its strongest, not just because that is right on principle, but because that is how we built the Swedish social model. If we give away power, at stake is not only the democratic principle that decisions are made by people you can kick out if you do not like their decisions, but our strong welfare state is also at risk. Take the Services Directive. A huge majority of Swedes are against it. The unions oppose it, so does the Swedish Parliament. But when its voted on at the EU Council, Sweden can be easily outvoted and the legislation imposed on us by politicians we did not elect. That's not a social Europe, and neither is it a democratic Europe.

As far as we are concerned, a socially progressive society cannot be built whilst a situation exists in which decisions have been taken out of the hands of the voters and dropped into the laps of people who are not accountable. Strong democracy is the first principle for building and protecting a social model that works.

After the French and Dutch 'no' votes, we have the opportunity to form a labour movement alternative for Europe. I really hope that we take it. The Swedish experience implies that the struggle for a 'Social Europe' doesn't necessarily mean that we build one model or system for every country in Europe. Such a project would not only be a project too big to be realistically undertaken by the European Labour Movement, but it would also mean posing a risk to the achievements of those countries who have already progressed on the road to a socially just society.

Therefore, the European centre-left should work for a 'Social Europe' with many different social models based upon the experiences of the Labour Movement in each country as well as upon inspiration from other countries. Such a 'Social Europe' should be based upon the principle of minimum standards instead of harmonisation and 'one-size-fits-all'. And it should stick to the principle that power should reside where democracy is at its strongest.

• Peter Gustavsson is a Research Fellow at the Centre for a Social Europe, on whose website this article recently appeared.

MEP's Diary.... BAIRBRE de BRÚN

Strasbourg plenary

The first plenary session of the European Parliament in 2006 was a lively affair with a number of crucial issues discussed and voted upon.

The usually quiet streets of Strasbourg came to life with the arrival of approximately 6,000 dockworkers from across Europe protesting against the proposed deregulation of port services. Despite trouble between workers and police who fired tear gas and used water cannons, a majority of MEPs were against the proposals which would have meant docking ships could bring in their own loaders, rather than use those currently available at existing ports. Not only would the proposal have threatened the livelihoods of dockworkers here in Ireland, but there were also concerns regarding health and safety. In a bid to cut costs, shipping companies may well have used unskilled, untrained, casual workers to load and unload vessels, and to operate cranes and lifting machinery. Ports would have become an unregulated workspace with the potential for serious health and safety breaches.

In the end MEPs voted massively by 532 votes to 120, with 25 abstentions, to reject the proposal which had been put before them two years ago in an almost identical form. While this is a small yet significant defeat against the right wing European Commission, a much larger battle lies ahead for the citizens of Europe in the coming months with the controversial EU Services Directive.

Austrian Presidency

The new Austrian Presidency of the EU set out its priorities for the forthcoming months stating that it will focus on boosting employment and economic growth. In addition it must use the time ahead to promote an alternative type of Europe which will work for a visible social inclusion strategy and prioritise initiatives which seek to promote social protections, including workers' rights. It should also reverse the trend toward increasing privatisation and move to secure the future of quality public services, particularly in relation to health and education services.

Gender equality

I delivered a speech in the Parliament last Thursday calling for practical measures to ensure gender equality between men and women in the workplace. Pledges by the EU to address this must be viewed with a degree of scepticism since their promises to help make a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty by 2010 remain unfulfilled.

It has emerged that on average a pay gap of 15% exists across the EU. In a recent survey it found that the gender pay gap in Ireland has substantially increased for women in spite of the country's economic growth. Irish women are paid 17% less for the same work as Irish men. Growth and jobs alone will not bring gender equality. It is clear that whilst the principle of equality has been established throughout the EU, the practice has not. It is up to all of us to change this situation.

MEPs back plan to save EU Constitution

The European Parliament has adopted a plan aiming to revive the EU Constitution, rejecting attempts to acknowledge the need for a revision of the original text. This is despite its rejection by voters in France and the Netherlands.

"The constitution is not dead. That is the outcome of today's decision," commented the Austrian Green MEP Johannes Voggenhuber. Voggenhuber and British Liberal MEP Andrew Duff were responsible for the report arguing that the EU charter should come into force by 2009, to pave the way for future enlargements and generate a better institutional structure for the EU.

The plan, supported by 385 MEPs, with 125 deputies voting against and 51 abstentions, is a response to the 2005 decision by the member states to hold a "reflection period" over the fate of the treaty, after it was rejected by French and Dutch citizens.

Its main idea is to organise various parliamentary and citizens' forums to keep the issue alive on the public agenda.

The rapporteurs tried to add a note about a possible rewriting of the 2004 constitution, mainly in the charter's third part, which deals with EU policies.

However, the centre-right and socialist groups refused such suggestions.

Still, Duff said he could observe at least a "growing realisation across the parliament, including in the German circles, that the present text is unlikely to come into force as it currently stands".

In their final vote, MEPs changed the wording of proposals concerning co-operation with national parliaments.

News In Brief

• Sellafield

Bairbre de Brún expressed her dismay after an Advocate General at the European Court of Justice criticised the Irish Government for pursuing a case against Sellafied through the United Nations, rather than through European channels. It now seems likely that the case will collapse when the court rules later this year.

• Discrimination

A debate in the European Parliament on protecting the gay community led to calls by MEPs for the EU to do more to prevent homophobia. Some criticism was levelled at the European Commission for failing to put pressure on governments to stamp out such discrimination by citizens and political leaders.

• Prisoners transported

A cross-party committee of 46 MEPs will examine if European governments knew that the CIA was allegedly using European airports to transport prisoners to third countries.

• Sugar sector

Bairbre de Brún has supported proposals to restructure the sugar sector through a vote in Parliament. Given the precarious nature of the Irish sector one of the main positive points of the proposal would provide compensation in restructuring which can be used for re-tooling factories to enable them to process sugar for bio-ethanol and bio-alcohol. This will assist countries such as Ireland who are way behind in their Kyoto protocol commitments and will also allow for many jobs to be retained in processing.

• Environment

Bairbre de Brún supports a report by Eija-Riitta Korhola MEP seeking to strengthen the need for citizens and statutory authorities to work together to improve the environment in EU member states.

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