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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Repatriating EU social policy

Ahead of David Cameron's announcement on Conservative policy on Europe, Open Europe has today published the first in a series of papers about what a future Conservative government should prioritise, now that the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified.

In about two hours time Cameron is expected to announce that he will seek to 'repatriate' social and employment legislation from the EU, and promise a referendum on any future transfers of power. Open Europe argues that, if the Conservatives are serious about repatriating powers to member states, then social and employment policy is exactly the right place to start.

However, in order to achieve a strong negotiating mandate and fully address the current problems with EU social policy, the Conservatives must announce a referendum on reform of the status quo. A referendum on future transfers of power will do nothing to address the substantial costs already arising from EU legislation, nor the lack of democratic accountability in this area.

EU social and employment laws have had a massive impact on the UK economy, accounting for 25 percent of the total cost of regulation in the UK over the past decade. Looking ahead, UK laws derived from EU social legislation will cost the British economy more than £71 billion between 2010 and 2020, even if no new laws are passed in that time.

In the briefing paper, Open Europe sets out how the Conservatives should go about achieving repatriation in practice. This includes seeking a strong mandate from voters to strengthen the UK's negotiation position in Brussels, through a referendum on reform.

The potential election of a new Conservative government will coincide with the opening of EU budget negotiations, where discussions will be held about how much each country should pay into the EU over the period 2014 to 2020.

The UK has a veto over these negotiations, and should be prepared to use it to fight for a package of reforms which must be fleshed out between now and the election. A major feature of such a package should be repatriation of social policy.

This package of reforms should be put to the British people in a referendum, with a question along the lines of: "Are you in favour or against withholding agreement to the EU budget until the European Reform Package has been adopted?"

Open Europe Research Director Mats Persson said:

"Given the substantial economic impact of these laws, the Conservatives are absolutely right to make EU social policy a priority. There is a strong practical, economic and democratic case for repatriating powers in this area."

"If the Conservatives succeed in bringing back powers over these policies, it doesn't mean scrapping every workplace right going - it means giving Westminster back the power to keep, scrap or amend these important laws to better suit the UK's individual economic circumstances. This would cut costs and bring these decisions much closer to the people - where they belong."

"Employment policy is best decided nationally, where it reflects different traditions and labour market models, which have evolved as a result of decades of democratic discourse in individual countries. The Conservatives would not be alone in Europe in arguing that centralised rules for such fundamentally different labour markets just don't make sense."

"That said, they will need a powerful mandate for negotiation in Brussels, and holding a referendum on a list of reforms, such as repatriation of social policy, is by far the best way to achieve it. UK voters must get a say on the future of the EU - a mere 'manifesto mandate' simply will not cut it."

Click here to read the briefing:


Richard said...

Reform of the UK's position in Europe certainly requires a degree of commitment by the British people. As they are not to be granted a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, it makes sense to make use of the Citizens Initiative mechanism brought in by the document.

If one million signatures are collected on a petition the Commission must consider the proposal.

Grassroots campaigns like that represented by www.right2bet.net (seeking the EU's adherence to its free market principles in the gambling industry) are an example of movements seeking to make use of this provision. This level of engagement can bring attention to neglected causes.

Carl Gardner said...

You're calling for an opt-out on equal pay for women, as well as other social legislation. Why? I think this needs specific justification.



Open Europe blog team said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Open Europe blog team said...

Hi Carl,

Thanks for your comment and for the links to your blog posts. Of course, as you also point out, no one is against equal pay for women, and we don’t suggest scrapping the laws in Europe which ensure equal pay.

If the ECJ and the Commission could be trusted not to fiddle with legal bases or interpret the ‘social’ articles in a way that paves way for “judicial creep” than we would have no problems with this article at all.

However, unfortunately, the Commission and the ECJ both have a history of being quite creative with the Treaty bases, in this and other areas, i.e. arbitrarily switching legal bases to push through legislation (the original Working Time Directive, the Data Retention Directive, the extension of the Social Protocol, etc).

As we argue in the briefing, social policy is particularly susceptible to judicial creep, and the best way to deal with this is to close off the articles in the EU treaties, while keeping crucial legislation at home (such as anti-discrimination laws).

To illustrate: The Temporary Agency Workers Directive is based on article 153 (as amended by the Lisbon Treaty). Fair enough. But it’s not inconceivable that an activist lawyer could claim “equal rights” for temporary workers on anti-discrimination grounds as well (mothers returning to work, etc). And there would be something to his argument, but when translated into a precdent set by the ECJ, for instance, you can see what a Pandora ’s Box this opens up.

Neither is it inconceivable that an activist lawyer could seek to overturn a domestic policy at home on basis of EU anti-discrimination laws, claiming similar “disproportionate impact” – even when such a policy has the mandate from voters. (see here for an example: http://www.openeurope.org.uk/media-centre/bulletin.aspx?bulletinid=51 – second post.

Now, this case was not taken up by the Commission, which it should be given credit for, but you can see where we’re coming from. It’s a very tricky area no doubt, and a political anthill for the Tories. An alternative could be to insert language into these articles which clearly limit their scope and possible application. Regardless, as you rightly suggest, an open and honest debate is what is needed now.

Segoviano said...

Following on Richard's comment as regards the citizens initiative included within the Lisbon Treaty, precisely thanks to this, citizens can have the possibility of speaking up and raising their voices and try at least to advocate a certain cause as governments just think of their own interests and not those of citizens.

With consumers initiatives, such as Right2bet, consumers are giving a voice with which to claim in favour of a certain cause. Lets take advantage of it and sign the petition!