Trade union leader: ‘The EPP is no longer unanimous on austerity’

Bernadette Ségol

Bernadette Ségol, Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation.

Bernadette Ségol, the secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), recalls her organisation’s messages on austerity policies ahead of today’s EU summit meeting, and warns that even centre-right politicians see the need for a policy shift.

Bernadette Ségol is the president of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). She spoke to EURACTIV’s Tanja Milevska.

You organised a new action at the beginning of this week on the Rond Point Schuman in Brussels, by erecting a banner addressed to the EU leaders all around the roundabout. What’s your message?

We are ahead of an important Council, where people are going to be chosen and what we want to say is that whoever is nominated at the head of the Commission or in other functions.

There is only one message that we have to carry, and that is that austerity is not working. That the question of employment, and a change in policy is key and that’s why we have this big cube, hoping that they will look at it and understand that this is really the question they have to address.

You really think the leaders will look at it and hear the message?

You never know. I have been encouraged by the document from the French presidency calling for a growth plan of 2% of EU GDP, which is exactly what we demand. I think there are some messages coming from Italy about stopping austerity and having a different approach. I’m not naïve, I’m not saying that because the paper is on the table, that’s it and that they will change policies because there are many other heads of governments who would not want to change policies.

But I really think that after the elections, there is more and more awareness that the policies have failed, I read an article written by a brilliant economist and Nobel laureate, Mr Pissarides, and he was certainly not “on our side” a few years ago, and now he’s taking another approach. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything he is saying either. But I can see changes, I can see some evolution in occasional messages from the IMF. So, for the ETUC, it is important to have this acknowledgment that what we have been saying for years now is making some progress. Once again, it’s a complicated bargain in the EU…

What we got from Mr. Renzi and Mr. Hollande is that we need a big investment plan and we need to stop austerity policy. That is what I’m  supporting and I do hope they will be strong enough in the talks to get something out of it.

What is the ETUC’s position on the whole Commission president bargaining between Parliament and Council?

We don’t have a position on the name, but we have always said that improving the democratic process in the EU was absolutely essential and we have always said that the election of the president by the European Parliament was important, and following the proposal from the EP seems to be the right move. It doesn’t mean we agree with everything Mr. Juncker has done, but the process, in our view, of presenting a candidate who is supported by the majority of the European Parliament seems to be the right one.

Juncker is one of the architects of the austerity policies you so strongly denounce. Aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot by supporting him?

Absolutely! That’s why I said we don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. But we are coherent in saying that we’ve called for respect for the proposal of the European parliament and now we are going to fight with Mr. Juncker if he becomes president. We will carry the same message. I met Mr. Juncker several times when he was president of the Eurogroup, and he knows our message, and I think he will have a “social” enough ear to understand what we mean. Yes, you’re right, he’s been promoting austerity policies and yes, the EPP got a majority in the EP. We are a democratic organisation, and we have to respect that. At a national level, we would not challenge an election if it’s not on our side. It’s important to say that.

If the EPP has won a majority at the last elections, maybe it also means that your message hasn’t gotten through to the citizens either. Maybe they don’t actually have such a problem with austerity policies…

Look, first of all, it is clear that the EPP has lost a lot of seats, proportionally more than the left. It’s also clear that the significant increase of far-right parties is a shakeup. Now, does it mean people are not against austerity? I think we would need to make a sharper analysis of what the results mean.

They are so different from country to country and I don’t see, even on the EPP side, when I go to the national level, even, those people don’t say ‘we have to stick to the rule of the 3%’ because most politicians and most of these people understand it’s not going to work, or if it works it’s a shame because they then believe it’s acceptable to have 36 million unemployed people, more poverty and more inequality.

So, we have to make a more precise analysis of all that and also remember that on the left, they have not lost that many seats. So, consultation on a case-by-case basis between the EPP and the S&D will have to take place, and we will push in our direction.

In a previous interview with your colleague from the US labour group, AFL-CIO, there was a challenging view about the role far-right or Eurosceptic groups could play by ‘asking the right questions on TTIP’. Do you see them as useful to your battle, to some extent?

It’s a very complicated issue. We can’t say they will have a positive effect. But we have to be very careful because, the economic policy which is behind these extreme groups are very much deregulatory.

For me, it could only be positive if it was leading to more protection for the people. But their policy is to dismantle the EU project. That’s not the ETUC point of view. If they have this effect, well and good, but my gut feeling is that we can’t believe they can have such a positive effect because their values are completely different from the values we as trade unions are carrying.

I understand what the AFL-CIO representative is saying. Can it be a shakeup? Well, we can take the challenge, but if they have more to say, it will not be in the direction we want, because what they want is more deregulation.

As a trade union, you are not opposed to TTIP?

We are not telling the Commission it shouldn’t negotiate. We are telling them that if they have an agreement, if they are discussing it with the US, it should have gold standards and not a deregulatory approach. For instance, would it be possible to have a REACH that would go across the Atlantic? Would it be possible to have an agreement on labour standards that would go across the Atlantic?

We are not against an agreement. We are laying down conditions. Those conditions are: respect of trade unions and labour rights, according to the ILO; no to the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS); we should have a positive list and public services should not be included in the discussions. Our conditions are set in the resolution we passed in 2013.

If these conditions are not met, will you then oppose TTIP resolutely?

Yes. TTIP has to go through national parliaments. Obviously, it’s important for employment and for the future generations, we are very serious about it.

How do you evaluate the current state of the negotiations?

One of our first problems is the lack of transparency. Do we know where we are? The answer is no. I’ve just signed a letter addressed to [Trade] Commissioner De Gucht because we have to reply to this ISDS questionnaire, which we are doing. But we shifted the last question to the first place because this is the only place where they actually ask whether we are in favour or not, and we are not.

Our problem currently is that the Commission has to be genuine about what they are saying on ISDS. If they consult, they should consult not for the sake of consulting, but taking the answers into consideration.

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