ETUC chief: Brexit should not be alibi to destroy social protections

Luca Visentini [ETUC]

In the wake of the British vote, European trade unions are getting ready to prevent Brexit becoming an alibi to destroy even more social protections, Luca Visentini said in an interview with

Luca Visentini is the Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Visentini spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti.

Brexit will affect every bit of economic activity. What’s was your first thought when you learned about the results of the referendum?

There will probably been very challenging consequences in terms of job destruction in the UK and possibly in the rest of Europe, because the economy will be strongly affected.

It’s about the only thing that can be predicted, because we still don’t know what will be the contents of the negotiations. We still don’t know when the UK will activate the Article 50. That could even be in October.

Young people have voted to remain in the EU, while elderly people have voted to leave. Is this the blatant evidence of an intergenerational conflict? Is this telling us how we should reshape the EU?

Old people against young people. Definitely. Step by step. First, we need to establish what the consequences are in social terms. What are the trade unions going to do for that. We are looking at the situation and are going to meet with all the European trade union leaders in London in one or two weeks, along with the TUC, to discuss what to do.

Our priority is to be part of the negotiations when they get to social issues. Not mainly to protect jobs, as this will be nearly impossible, but at least to make sure Brexit is not an alibi for the British government to destroy even more social protection that exists in the UK, also because a large part of social protection comes from EU law.

Another reason to be part of the negotiations is to avoid a situation in which other member states see Brexit as an excuse to come back with a bad mobility package and to adopt the same derogations that were granted to Cameron, according to the deal.

We are quite sure some countries will try to do so. I was in Berlin on Friday. I met the state secretary for labour, and he told me very clearly that they want to start the discussion on the mobility package and that they want some derogations on family benefits and other benefits for mobile workers across the EU, because they have a lot of abuses they want to tackle.

We have two big problems in addition to job destruction, which is going to be a short-term effect. Firstly, how are we going to protect British workers from a complete liberalisation of social protection. Then on the other side, it’s a matter of stopping these attempts to extend derogations just because there has been a Brexit.

We can agree in principle with [European Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker that now they are gone, they have to go quickly.

If we have to wait until October for Article 50 then two years of negotiations and derogations, Europe will be completely stuck. Even positive initiatives started by the Commission like the social pillar could be blocked. These are the problems at the moment. We need the process to be fast, so the implementation can continue and so we can limit the damage to UK and European workers.

This is in the short-term… and in the medium and long term?

In the medium-long term, the point is that we fully share what the four political groups in the Parliament have put in their draft declaration.

They clearly say that Brexit is there, but that this is an opportunity to start thinking about reshaping the EU and launching a process for political institutional reforms and macro-economic reforms. This means that the fiscal compact should be frozen and that we should start having a broader discussion about reforming the EU.

We are absolutely on the same page, as this is how we are going to start regaining the trust of citizens in the EU institutions. And the only way we can tackle the economic crisis and have sustainable growth in Europe. We cannot simply continue with soft actions or proposals.

When you say restructure the EU, can you be more specific?

I can tell you what I personally think. Now we are starting a complex, but quick, process within the ETUC to try and find out if there is enough common ground to come up with ambitious proposals.

We will have this meeting in London in a couple of weeks, then we will have an extraordinary executive committee on 6 September.

We have invited [European Council President Donald] Tusk to come and we will start a discussion on a paper, where we will propose some reforms for the future of the EU.

It already exists, there is a draft, but it was drafted by the secretary, something which we haven’t agreed upon yet with our affiliates.

On content, there are still a number of question marks. First of all, if we want to make sure that the EU institutions can regain some form of democratic legitimacy, then why not give the Parliament the right to legislate, instead of just merely replying to initiatives forwarded by the Commission.

Secondly, why not make sure that the Commission President is directly elected when the Parliament is elected.

Thirdly, why not transform the Commission into a real government of the EU. That means no more 28 or 27 Commissioners appointed by the Council, but fewer than 27, elected by the Parliament to rule the EU. That would make the Commission more independent from  individual member states. Why not extend the majority vote as much as possible in the Council instead of unanimity.

Why not rebalance powers? For example, if a directive, in this case proposed by either the Commission or Parliament, is torn apart by the Council, then why not allow the Parliament to veto the final compromise and start the process over again. Then, what will the role of the Parliament be in the future when it comes to the fiscal compact, in the semester process.

Is it possible to have a real balance of power between the three institutions when it comes to economic governance of the union?  What about revising the fiscal compact to make sure it isn’t something that blocks economic growth, but promotes it? What about revising and introducing flexibility into the stability and growth pact, to make sure public investment is possible and not simply having a fake public investment plan, as the Juncker Plan is.

There is no public money because of the stability and growth pact: it doesn’t allow the member states to put in money. These are some ideas. It’s clear that what the institutions say is right: to do all this we probably need a two-speed Europe. It’s something we are going to have to reflect upon.

Are your members more inclined towards two-speed, or sticking with the current system?

This is what we are going to discuss with them. There are social elements to our proposal, including a sort of social compact. This is to ensure that economic freedoms do not overcome social rights. There are some elements that can really rebalance the situation.

The social pillar could be a tool to do this, but at the moment it is not. We are going to need treaty change in order for this to happen. This Social Progress Protocol should be something that is included in the treaty.

So Brexit may have opened the way for changing the treaty?

Yes. In any case, they are going to have to reopen the treaty, for two reasons. Firstly, they will have to change the treaty in order to take the UK out of the EU. Secondly, they will have to reopen it in 2017 if they want to include the fiscal compact in the treaty. These are two unavoidable elements, especially the first one.

So, let’s use this opportunity to bring about change.

Absolutely. How much support our members will have for this, we still don’t know. We know that it has its critics, especially from the Nordic and eastern countries. But this will form the core of our upcoming discussion.

We know that because of Brexit, but it was also true before, that we are at a crossroads. One way lies more or different integration, which can rebuild trust. The other lies disintegration of the EU. This is clear. A majority of our members agreed with this position. There are some who think that there is a third way, namely, to continue how we are currently. But after Brexit, I don’t think this third way exists. I’m not even sure it was an actual option before.

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