At last Friday’s European network meeting at the TUC we received an update of the continuing fight back against attacks on our pay, working conditions and social benefits across Europe. Protests against austerity continue in Greece and the first general strike of the year was held on 23 February. From the end of February through to April, Romanian trade unions will organise a series of rallies to protest against proposals to amend the Labour Code to create a “more flexible labour market”.

The next Euro-demonstration No to Austerity – For Social Europe, for Fair Pay and for Jobs will take place in Budapest on 9 April. The European TUC (ETUC) is jointly organising the demonstration with its six Hungarian affiliates and has appealed for support from members in neighbouring countries such as Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, as well as other European countries. The demonstration will coincide with the informal meeting of EU Economy and Finance Ministers (ECOFIN) and the European Central Bank taking place on 8 and 9 April in Budapest.

Along with austerity, the discussion on European Economic Governance (a polite way of saying ‘make working people pay’) continues to dominate the agenda (as reported this in my blog of 29 January – ‘Making us pay for their crisis’). At the European Council on 4 February, France and Germany proposed a “European Competitiveness Pact” to harmonise labour and tax policies in the Euro zone. The proposals include making it a constitutional violation to exceed national debt limits, abolishing automatic wage indexation (the practice of index-linking salary increases to inflation used for example in Belgium and Portugal) and linking pension age to each country’s demography, thus raising retirement ages. In exchange funding for the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) would be increased. The ETUC reacted firmly to the Franco-German pact, warning that the EU was on a collision course with social Europe and its core principle of the autonomy of collective bargaining. It insisted that the trade union movement cannot accept competitiveness being used as an “alibi” for interference in collective bargaining systems across Europe.  It also predicted that the proposals would only be the start of a process undermining wage formation systems and workers’ and trade unions’ bargaining position across the whole of Europe and not just the Euro zone countries. Several Member States have expressed reservations about the “Competitiveness Pact” and Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria and Spain have voiced their opposition. An emergency summit is scheduled for 11 March and in advance of this the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso have presented their own competitiveness pact. The Franco-German pact has merely added to trade union consternation following the European Commission’s European Economic Governance package. A draft resolution on European Economic Governance will be presented to the ETUC Executive Committee on 8-9 March. The draft resolution sets out the ETUC’s proposals for European governance that would lead to a fair and more equal Europe. These include converting EFSF bonds to Eurobonds, effective regulation of the financial markets, an EU investment programme amounting to 1% of European GDP, developing new sources of finance and tackling tax competition. ETUC affiliates discussed the draft resolution at the Economic and Employment Committee on 1 March, strongly criticizing the interference in collective bargaining and agreed with ETUC position that a competitiveness pact would put wages under fire and trigger a downward spiral. The European Council on 24-25 March will attempt to agree the terms of economic governance to apply throughout the EU from 2013. The Belgian unions will mount a protest against this form of economic governance and the ETUC Executive Committee meeting on 8-9 March will consider how to contribute to this event.

I had hoped that on the 26 March London TUC demo against cuts, a speaker from one of the Continental European unions would be on the platform to expose all this, but it seems the platform will be packed with UK trade union general secretaries (or so I was told at the meeting). Maybe one of them might just raise what is going on in the Commission and how the unions are fighting back and how really it’s all one big struggle regardless of where we live and what sort of government is in office.

By the way some interesting reading on the world economic situation may be found on ‘Leftbanker’s’ web site at: http://www.leftbanker.net/

 Thanks to the TUC Brussels office for much of this report.