(26 February 2021) The EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement is a new development in a long relationship between the UK, the EU and other European countries. And trade unions and our cooperation have been and will be part of that story. All of us in EPSU play a key role in writing it especially with regard to the rights of working women and men, the future of public services and our communities. That was the general tenure of the discussions of the EPSU President and General Secretary with the UK affiliates. With Brexit the relationship changes and certain things get more relevance like the work we did and do which is not related to the institutional agenda in the European Union. Some of our work will find different expressions, other European bodies will play a role and in the social dialogue the autonomous agenda with the employers will gain in importance.
From our discussions it is evident that the agreement itself is unfinished business to say the least. UK unions mentioned several issues workers are running into related to e.g. social security and state pension entitlements for EU-citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, the mutual recognition of qualifications and the pressure to diverge, the fees to be paid for registrations and chilling effect on the attractiveness of the UK labour market for certain professions, the obstacles to trade (far from frictionless as the Tories promised) having negative effects on public services and businesses. Some of these issues will be considered in the so-called Technical Committees related to the agreement. We are demanding a place in these committees. Their work is not only of interest to government officials or business representatives. The EU and the UK will continue to talk about how the relation develops and they influence each other.
Of grave concern to all is the way workers’ rights are treated. The UK government has put up trial balloons that certain rights can be tampered with despite the non-regression clause in the agreement. To recall that for the hard-core wing of the Tory Brexit it was all about doing away with EU level protections to get a free hand for unfettered competition over the backs of workers. Companies with workers in the UK already are treating those as 2nd class workers, denying workers the rights they had when they were part of the EU. Good examples are the denial of information and consultation rights at EU level. Examples were given of companies who do not feel bound by the European Works Council Directive. The UK and the EU are to respect the non-regression clause. New ways of campaigning will be explored as the European Trade Union Federations like EPSU will defend workers’ rights. This has been a strong part of EPSU’s work like with our union comrades in Turkey, Ukraine and many other countries.
The coming years will see unprecedented challenged for public services. The green and digital transformations have profound affects. The risk of austerity policies to reduce public expenditure to reduce the debt burden rather than public investment to grow our economies will face the UK as much as other European countries. Standing up for our public services will continue to unite Europe’s unions. The defense of workers’ rights, our public services and the future of the relations are epitomized in Northern Ireland. It has close relations with the Republic of Ireland, is part of the EU for a large part of its rules and regulations and part of the UK. Politics are complicated and some politicians profile themselves in adversarial ways, stoking unrest and violence. Unions are unique in that we work for all on the work place and cooperate across boundaries in defense of workers’ and trade union rights.
Our exchanges will continue and defending all European workers and standing public services is part and parcel of EPSU’s DNA. The meeting took place 25 February 2021, online. The EPSU President, General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary joined the meeting.