Shrouded with secrecy and posing a threat to public services, Owen Tudor tells EURACTIV why the UK Trade Union Congress doesn’t believe the hype over TTIP, and why exploitation, rather than immigration, should be the cause of people’s concerns.
Owen Tudor is the head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department.
Can we start with the TUC’s position on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership?
We are opposed to TTIP. We are supportive of trade and reducing tariffs. But we have concerns that are not about tariffs.
We are deeply uncertain about what the benefits will be. Some of the inflated figures are frankly bizarre. Even if it was true that on average, people would get an extra £400, most people won’t see that. It will accrue to the top.
We are sceptical about the benefits, and we are certain some people will lose out. Something needs to be done for the people who will lose out.
Our major concern is with ISDS. It is a bigger problem now than in previous trade deals, because there is more scope for it in TTIP. Previously, they haven’t been widely used. But we are seeing massive growth. Our fundamental disagreement with ISDS is that it privileges one particular group, that of foreign investors. Why just privileged foreign investors? Everyone can use the European Court of Justice. This isn’t the case with ISDS. In the Comprehensive Trade and Economic Agreement (CETA is a negotiated, but as yet unratified trade deal between Canada and the EU) if you are a multinational who thinks their rights have been abused, you can go to arbitration and get a multi-billion dollar settlement. If you are a worker who feels their rights under CETA have been abused, you can get a committee of experts to issue a strongly worded report. Why isn’t this the other way around?
Precisely the same governments who insist on ISDS are those who insist the UN’s guiding principles on business and human rights shouldn’t be actionable in international courts. Why is this sort of thing good for investors, but not for everyone else?
We don’t think the prescriptions on labour standards are good enough. The EU has a policy it will not sign GSP+ trade agreements with countries that have not signed all 8 of the International Labour Organisation’s conventions. America has signed two, the same number as China.
We also think public services decisions should be made by democratically elected governments. That’s on both sides of the Atlantic. We defend the Buy America policy. American electorates would rather their tax dollars are spent buying American services, and that’s fine.
Officials, including Cecilia Malmström have said public services, including the NHS would be except from any deal.
They’ve said they reckon. People down the pub reckon things. Our legal advice is that CETA document isn’t strong enough to protect public services. We know there are armies of corporate lobbyist involved. This is not the sort of the thing you take a punt on. Cecilia Malmström is a really nice lady, but that’s not enough. We can’t put the future of the health service at risk because people are nice. If they want to protect the health service they can write that into the treaty. If they don’t write it in but just say ‘it will be alright’, I don’t think we can rely on trust.
We also have concerns of the so called harmonisation of regulatory principles. There are benefits to reducing the number of safety tests that measure the same thing, but in a slightly different way. But we are worried about safety at work regulations which are weaker in America than in Europe.
You can challenge us that we don’t know what will be included in the text, but by the time we do know it will be too late.
I accept the argument this is the most open trade agreement the EU has ever done. But the bar is set pretty low.
We negotiate all the time. We understand there is a need for some level of secrecy. But things should be open, unless there is a bloody good reason why it shouldn’t be.
Where does the TUC stand on the issue of migration into the EU?
We wrote to the prime minister on Wednesday saying we wanted Mare Nostrum reinstated. The European Trade Union Confederation warned this would happen if you got rid of search and rescue. It is disgraceful people knew what would happen, and now they are crying crocodile tears over it.
How about internal EU migration?
We’ve always been supporters of free movement of workers in the EU. If you don’t have free movement of workers all you are left with is free movement of capital and the jobs go.
We think the key issue around free movement is worker’s rights. We want workers to be treated equally wherever they are. Until you have established equality, there will always be differences in wages across the EU.
You’re discussing here movement of workers, what about movement of people?
I don’t think it profits us to link benefits and free movement in the way some politicians have. The evidence is that people aren’t moving for benefit entitlements. They are moving for work. Some of the changes to benefits rules being discussed are not necessarily a bad idea. For example, I don’t see why we should pay child benefit for children not in this country. On the other hand, if you remove that what you encourage is for those children to come here.
What about moves to restrict access to in-work benefits for new migrants?
There is a case to be made there, but you have to look at unintended consequences. We moved away from strict contributory measures because it doesn’t do women to take time out from the labour market any favours, it doesn’t do disabled people any favours, and it doesn’t do a 16-year-old who leaves school and can’t find a job any favours.
What we think is far more pressing is to prevent exploitation in the labour market, which leads to under cutting and subsequently benefit claiming. If you pay migrants less than the going rate, you pull the going rate downwards which pushes people into needing in work benefits. There are plenty of employers who are happy for the state to pay part of the wages they should be paying to their staff, and plenty of exploitative landlords who are over charging for overcrowded accommodation.
It is worth pointing out the irony of a government saying people need to pay in before they can receive when it is simultaneously restricting access to benefits of people who have paid in their whole lives with measures like the bedroom tax. There is slight scepticism that they really have the interest of hard working British people in the forefront of their minds in this case.
We are not in that group that says to people who are worried about migration is that there is nothing to worry about. But it is not the fault of migrants. People don’t come over here asking for less money. They are being exploited which then has knock on affects for the rest of society.
We do need measures that encourage integration. It is our experience that if people can speak English they will able to integrate much better. As a trade union, we see ourselves as a tool for integration, getting people involved in the work place.
What is the TUC’s general attitude towards to EU?
The TUC’s approach to Europe has changed over the years. Last time there was a referendum, we were advocating a no vote based on concerns over the common market.
Britain was [different] in the ’60s and ’70s. The era of cheap holidays hadn’t started, there were few advocates for foreign food. It is difficult to explain how alien the continent felt at that point.
What swung us round was the Delors speech to Congress in 1988. He explained the deal for a social model in return for a free market. We bought into that idea at the time, partly because we agreed intellectually, and partly because at that stage, the EU was the only state institution willing to engage with us. Margaret Thatcher certainly wasn’t.
Unions are affected by debates about federalism and peace to the continent. But unions tend to take their opinion of the EU from two places: growth and rights in the work place.
How well do you think the EU works at the moment?
Our view is that we would suffer economically and lose some of our rights if we left. But our support for the European Union is not starry eyed or unconditional. We have a pragmatic approach to the European Union.
I don’t think it is a surprise that our members aren’t too enthusiastic at the moment. Partly it is just not good economically at the moment and partly it is policy aimed in the wrong direction with austerity. That said, you can say the same about the UK where there is supposed to be a recovering, but people aren’t feeling it.
What reforms would you like to see?
We would support more investment in times of recession and paying it back at times of growth, and more action to address equality across the EU. Such as an underpinning of corporate tax, or the banning of shifting profits. We’d also like to see a move to revitalize collective bargaining.
But in terms of how the EU works, the ends are more important to us than the means at EU level. In terms of two seats for the EP, of course it should have one, but is that the biggest problem facing the EU? No. I wish we were at the stage where this was the most pressing problem facing the EU, but it isn’t. It’s mass unemployment, and that is where we think the EU should be focusing its energy.