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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Europe : fort coup de vent mauvais sur les travailleurs et les migrants

by Jean-Jacques Régibier

A harsh blow for European workers and migrants

Translated Saturday 27 February 2016, by Philippa Griffin

After a good deal of cunningly orchestrated suspense, and after granting privileges that will allow the UK to curtail anew the rights of their citizens and to penalise foreign workers, the European Council is not only opening their floodgates to other degrading policies, but is shutting Europe’s doors in the faces of migrants and refugees.

As the Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts (from the Greens / European Free Alliance Party) confided before the recent meeting of the European Council: “when one stoops so low as to open the Pandora’s Box of curbing workers’ rights” because some among them are not native citizens, “we cease to know where we are heading.” Or in fact, as he added, we know only too well: we are heading towards a reduction in rights for all workers, including native citizens.

It must be understood that today, that Pandora’s Box has well and truly been opened.

The more diplomatic amongst us might say that here in Brussels we have just failed to reinforce citizens’ rights. The harsh reality is that Cameron’s flagship promise – namely, removing the opportunity for citizens of other European countries who have come to work in the UK to claim social support and social housing for the next four years – has just been passed. Some nit-picking over the details of the final agreement will follow, but the result is unambiguous: the social rights of European citizens working in the UK (we haven’t even begun to consider the rights of non-EU citizens) will henceforth be simply considered inferior to those of British workers. By giving rise to such stark inequality, the principle “equal rights for equal work” has been blown to smithereens. It is impossible not to draw a parallel between this decision and the new workers’ code now taking effect in France, as this too will sound the death knell on a century of workers’ rights. These include an end to the 35-hour working week, the possibility of compulsory working until the age of 60, the “uberisation” of the economy – where goods and services have become available at the swipe of a finger or at the touch of a button, engendering a race to the bottom – and the growing dominance of the ultra-free market economy.

Rather than adapting the European rules to the British system (social rights are financed by taxes in the UK, as opposed to by subscriptions in France) by summoning Europe’s entire body of politicians to spend sleepless nights in argument; there is a simpler solution: namely, modifying the UK’s rules. This had even been suggested by MEP Pervenche Berès, who did not understand that this had not been suggested to David Cameron by other European leaders.

And with what results?

Faced with Cameron’s determination to strip back the British state almost without mercy, has Europe strengthened its position? Evidently not; Europe has emerged even weaker than before, shown by the verbal U-turns of certain state leaders and parliamentary figures. Let us consider the example of François Hollande: after two days’ negotiation of marathon proportions, he asserted that “the same rules must apply everywhere in Europe now and into the future”, adding that “they will see no exemptions”, and that “a Europe where each state plays by its own rules is not a possibility”. Once again, Hollande thus exemplifies perfectly the figure who uses childlike rhetoric to avoid serious debate.

For in reality, Hollande is clearly wrong: the concessions which have just been granted to David Cameron in order to minimise the risk of “Brexit” (despite the fact that the UK already benefits from a whole suite of significant privileges such as the right to remain outside the Schengen Zone and to keep its own currency) serve only to reinforce a culture of exceptions and exemptions in Europe. Just in case the point had not been clearly enough understood, Cameron was at pains to stress that “The UK will never form part of a super-EU state, we will never adopt the Euro, and we will not sign up to those more dysfunctional parts of the EU.” To this, one might add: without the Europe, the Schengen Zone and citizen’s rights, what of the EU remains?

A "short intermission" to discuss migration

It would be wrong to think that the refugee crisis – which should, given the “Brexit” debate, have been the focus of discussions between state leaders – was cut short simply because the Turkish government, nominated by European leaders as the “solution to the problem”, had cancelled their journey to Brussels due to the terrorist attack in Ankara. In the end, when only five out of fifty hours were devoted to refugees, the naive reaction would be to think that most negotiations took place behind the scenes. In reality, the topic was sidelined.

We know, for example, that Alexis Tspiras would have threatened to refuse to support the final pact with Cameron if concrete steps had not been agreed to help Greece to cope with the huge influx of refugees, as Greece faces significant social and economic and social struggles of its own. In the end, Tspiras had to abandon hope of obtaining many promises. Nonetheless, the framework for further discussions about the refugee crisis, scheduled for March, is clear; they will take a much more stringent approach compared with the plans agreed some weeks ago. The European Council warns that: “we must rapidly stem the flow of migrants, protect our external borders, crack down on illegal migration and preserve the integrity of the Schengen Zone”.

No longer are leaders discussing how to share migrants and refugees fairly amongst different European countries, a conversation which would have allowed them to demonstrate European solidarity, not only towards refugees but between EU states. Instead, each country is focussed upon controlling their borders. European leaders will shortly be demanding that Turkey closes her own in order to stem the tide of migrants at the entry point into Europe and to shelter the Schengen Zone as far as possible. In reality, refugees are likely to continue to flood into Greece for many years to come (this has obviously been a trend for some time), a country which is currently home to the majority of refugees, with significant risks for its social, economic and political stability.

We might remark that although the UK celebrates having obtained « everything that Cameron asked for” at the meeting and that it has also liberated itself from the requirements of the Schengen Zone, Cameron refuses point-blank to accept a fair proportion of refugees and migrants into the UK, seemingly ignoring the several thousand who are camped on the other side of the English Channel. In Calais, the French government has just set a deadline of Tuesday 1st March to bulldoze half of the Jungle Camp which serves as a temporary home to these people. Given both the situation in Calais and the evolving national policies of European governments, how can we fail to see that a covert war has begun against workers, migrants and refugees?

A healthy dose of populism

The Council meeting has also provided an insight into the potential impact of populist and xenophobic movements which are sweeping into more or less every corner of Europe, demonstrating a return to a mentality of “territorial defence”. Cameron provides the most obnoxious example, showing that he needs to pander to his eurosceptic opposition not only externally, but also within his party. These same arguments are espoused today by European leaders to legitimise their refusal to welcome more migrants and refugees, with the most xenophobic countries no longer hesitating to create leagues outside of European political space to take extreme measures. Hungary, Poland, The Czech Republic and Slovakia have just forced the closure of the Greek/Macedonian border, which effectively excludes Greece from the Schengen Zone and makes it the only country to welcome refugees at point of entry.

When Jean-Claude Juncker spoke with journalists reporting on these two days of meetings, he emphasised that in order to demonstrate the “elegance” of a Europe able to cope with a crisis and able to take decisions (although this runs contrary to Europe’s current moral state), it is instructive to remember that true elegance consists less of embellishing the truth than simply stating it.

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