Published on June 13th, 2016 | by Prospect2
EU referendum debate, Belfast
On 9th June 2016, Queen’s University Belfast was the setting for ‘Brexit – the Trade Union Debate’, hosted by the School of Sociology, Social Policy & Social Work in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The welcome was given by John Pinkerton of the School, who also chaired the debate. The four speakers represented a cross-section of trade unions and wider civil society.
The first to speak was Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary of the ICTU, speaking on behalf of the Remain camp. Bunting explored many of the rights and protections we as workers have come to accept as being standard whilst being a part of the EU – the Working Time Directive, maternity rights, protections for part-time and agency workers, etc. He also explored the Leave campaigners and their motives – Boris Johnson in particular – as well as the wider political establishment’s struggle for power rather than their true engagement with the debate for proper and just reasons. Thus the question around whether or not our rights would be protected in a Britain post-EU was raised.
This narrative was contrasted against that of John Hillary, Executive Director of War on Want. Hillary noted that it was the opinion of the organisation he heads that the ‘good’ actions of the EU in its heyday have been sharply eroded in recent years. A movement from the social ideals of the EU of the 80s and 90s to the stark contrast of the pursuit of neoliberal ideologies of the 2000s and beyond has signified what is to be enshrined in the EU of our future – one in which rights continue to be eroded due to increasingly capitalist drives through ventures such as TTIP and where, fundamentally, Social Europe is dead. What Hillary honestly admitted was that the alternative still remains somewhat of a mystery.
Once more for the remain side, Lisa McElherron, Head of Public Affairs at the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action presented her arguments. McElherron lamented in particular the recent actions in Greece due to austerity and made no qualms about being frustrated by some actions within the EU, also noting that she agreed with many of the reasons why people believe Britain should leave the EU; however, she did not agree with their solution to the problem. McElherron debated the power of solidarity and the need to stick together. There are 50 million trade union members in the EU and only by being together can we present a fight against big business and governments. This task becomes all the more difficult from outside the room, not to mention the possibility that a post-EU UK could still be liable to abide by EU legislation in order to continue trading with other member states of the EU.
Finally for the Leave side it was Doug Nichols, Chair of Trade Unionists Against the EU. Nichols presented himself as a trade unionist who has always been a Eurosceptic, having remained against many of the EU movements over the decades. He talked about how Britain often supersedes workers’ rights enshrined in EU legislation and that it was Britain who helped write the European Convention of Human Rights. Furthermore, he also complained that many of the institutions within the EU system are not directly elected by the people and so are not apparently answerable to EU citizens, instead pandering to lobbyists ‘camped-out’ in Brussels.
All sides presented convincing arguments to the audience members and lively discussion ensued. It was a genuine display of debating technique that reached to the core of what we as trade unions need to hear to make an informed opinion – an honest discussion about the real issues with none of the mudslinging so often seen. As such, there was no clear winner of the debate but what was presented was more food for thought before 23rd June.