Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented the State of the European Union to the European Parliament. It is the annual bonanza of initiatives for the forthcoming year. This year’s speech was steeped in the efforts of the European Union and Member States to support Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression. It was with much rhetorical flourish that von der Leyen underlined that the struggle of the Ukrainian people is now part of the fight for European values.
The Commission recognises that the war has led to increased energy prices, causing serious hardship for many European households and von der Leyen announced several measures in response. This includes a fundamental reform of the electricity market, something we have long argued for. EPSU has regularly pointed out the dangers of abolishing regulated energy prices for domestic households. Unfortunately, the Commission’s liberalisers have been deaf to our warnings. The mood has now changed, although the Commission has so far refrained from capping gas prices. Other proposals, like taxes on excess profits, are certainly welcome.
We had expected von der Leyen to put forward more proposals to protect jobs, such as a continuation of the SURE employment support programme. While she recognised the problem of nursing and other staff shortages, the “Year of Skills” announced for 2023 is not the answer. In contrast, the World Health Organisation has developed a far more complete set of recommendations in its report on workforce challenges, not least the need to improve pay and conditions. The staffing challenge also faces mental health and while we welcome von der Leyen’s proposal for a mental health strategy, there was no indication if this would address stress at work nor lead to more mental health nurses to implement such a programme.
A European Political Community?
The proposal for a European Political Community would bring together the EU and all European countries that have a relationship with it – the seven candidate countries plus Norway, Iceland, the UK and Georgia among others. It would be based on the EU’s fundamental rights and democratic values and could be an important development. However, we’ll need to see how it relates to the European Treaty for Human Rights and the Council of Europe and, particularly, what role is foreseen for people, workers and trade unions.
Von der Leyen’s announcement that the Commission will propose a convention to change the EU treaties could be important for the trade union movement. The European Parliament certainly jumped on board and welcomed the proposal. The Commission claimed it had been inspired by citizens’ opinions delivered in the European conference consultation process. I doubt this, unless citizens’ views happen to match what the Commission wants. One of the citizens’ panels expressed support for a strengthening of public health and social care, rather than more opportunities for profit-making by private companies. But instead of going down this road, Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica, in her press conference launching the European Care Strategy, argued for private investment in care services. That is not listening to workers and the people.
This failure to address the core issue of staffing shortages is only likely to lead to more industrial action like that being taken by our Finnish nurses. And instead of listening to workers at the sharp end, the Finnish government has moved to curtail the right to strike for nurses. EPSU condemns these attacks on trade union rights and the attempts by governments and employers to take away the tools to defend ourselves.
Overall, von der Leyen’s speech left much unaddressed. Meanwhile, the ETUC and its affiliates are continuing with plans for a month of action in October to address the cost-of-living crisis, with possibly larger joint demonstrations in December. Many unions are already mobilising including our French and Latvian affiliates and Czech and Slovak trade unions. Let us know about your actions. Together we can achieve change. Success!