Academic journal article Capital & Class

EU Labour Law Section: The Great Deregulation and the Campaign for Free Movement of Labour Post-Brexit

Academic journal article Capital & Class

EU Labour Law Section: The Great Deregulation and the Campaign for Free Movement of Labour Post-Brexit

Article excerpt

As opposed to the allusions made both in the British media and politicians' statements, particularly in the Leave campaign, that the EU has created negative living conditions for people in Britain, EU labour law has had a positive effect on local labour law and free movement of labour is a crucial aspect of social, economic and political development. This article focusses on EU labour law to make this argument, looking first at the ways that British labour law has been influenced by EU labour law. Then I discuss a defining feature of EU membership: the free movement of labour. The threat of its removal when the United Kingdom leaves the single market has led to a significant national campaign, 'Free Movement of Labour: Campaign to defend freedom of movement across Europe, post-Brexit'. (1)

In this article, I am not defending the EU as a perfect regional framework by any means. The EU has been repeatedly critiqued for its neoliberal agenda and I recognise its limitations. What I am saying is that there has been scant discussion of why the vote swung to 'leave' during this particular phase in Britain's history. What did voters actually want? Why was the majority vote to leave the EU located in post-industrial working-class areas of Britain? What did people think leaving the EU would do for Britain? In the wake of unanswered questions, Article 50 has been triggered. In the following piece, I deal, not with the questions of why people voted to leave, which is dealt with in other articles in this symposium in Capital & Class, but what it is likely to mean for workers after the United Kingdom leaves the EU. To do so, I outline how Britain has benefited from EU labour law over time.

How Britain has benefited from EU labour law

The UK voted to leave the EU in a momentous referendum held on 23 June 2016. This was the second time Britain has held an EU-related referendum. The first time was in 1975, where the vote was whether to stay within the European Economic Community. Britain has had a tense relationship with the EU since its formation in the 1990s and in its lead up to its joining the EC. Historically, leading Conservatives such as Churchill, and Labour Party leaders, such as Gaitskell, were concerned that Britain should be more focussed on maintaining its transatlantic relationship with the United States, or otherwise was more interested in a transatlantic relationship with the United States, its colonial relations, or otherwise protecting its national sovereignty, and were therefore sceptical about joining or applying for membership in the then-EEC or EC.

As a result, the United Kingdom did not join the EC until 1973, under a Conservative government. In its campaign for the general election one year later, the Labour Party committed itself to a referendum to let people make that decision, announcing in its 1974 manifesto that

The Labour Government pledges that within twelve months of this election we will give the British people the final say, which will be binding on the Government--through the ballot box--on whether we accept the terms and stay in or reject the terms and come out.

What is interesting about this manifesto is its commitment to the prioritisation of social justice over economic 'rights'. This is in marked contrast to Theresa May's letter triggering Article 50, 43 years later, which puts forward a plea for economic and security cooperation after the UK's exit from the EU to be negotiated after the quite different second referendum result in June 2016. The letter triggering Article 50 says nothing about social justice and all mentions of 'security' are in the context of an international terrorist threat. The Labour Party in the 1970s saw the British people's voice as important with regard to 'social security', a 'policy for morality, equality and justice' in foreign policy and security for 'people who live in furnished tenancies'. The wording of the letter triggering Article 50 is curious given that many of the British population who voted to leave the EU live in post-industrial areas, where social justice in the way of public spending and job creation has been extremely low. …

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