Following lengthy negotiations, a political agreement on Great Britain’s exit from the European Union was reached at the EU Summit last Sunday. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaks of the best possible negotiation result. However, the British Trades Union Congress TUC still sees the rights of the working population being at risk.
On 25 November 2018, the EU’s heads of state and government agreed to the almost 600 pages long text of Great Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement and also unanimously supported the 26 pages long political Declaration of Intent concerning the future cooperation between the EU and Great Britain. The summit meeting was met with protests, not only in Brussels. It is not certain whether the British House of Commons will vote in favour of the Draft Brexit Agreement on 11 December. Not only have many members of the oppositional Labour Party voiced objections against the negotiation result, but also MPs from May’s own ranks. The European Parliament too must agree to the Withdrawal Agreement at the beginning of 2019. Thereafter, the Member States in the Council shall cast their vote in March, where an exit of Great Britain requires a qualified majority.
Goodbye Worker’s Rights?
Great Britain will leave the EU on 29 March 2019; the Withdrawal Agreement shall come into force on the following day. The Agreement stipulates a transition period until 31 December 2020, which provides for Great Britain’s remaining in the EU Single Market and the Customs Union. Optionally, this transition period may be extended by 1 or 2 years. The AK too, had been in favour to leave the possible extension of the transition period open. Great Britain may negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries, however, she has to adhere to applicable EU law during the transition period, however, without having a vote in the European institutions. The Withdrawal Agreement guarantees citizens from EU countries and British people living in the EU the right to live and work in the respective countries and to have the same claims to health insurance, pension and social benefits as before. According to the political Declaration of Intent, the creation of a free trade area without tariffs, duties, dues or quantitative restrictions in respect of the movement of goods will take priority after this transition period.
However, the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) warns that especially the Agreement on Labour Law with the EU was only included in the Declaration of Intent and thus was not legally binding. Plans of the Conservative Government indicate that existing EU Directives, which improved the lives of the working population in Great Britain, will be reversed. Without the European Labour Law, the United Kingdom would have virtually no legal requirements for work breaks, paid holidays, the protection of pregnant workers and non-discrimination. Hence, workers’ rights could therefore sharply fall behind those in the remaining EU Member State. According to the TUC, there would be enough statements by Conservatives MPs and Ministers, who positioned themselves, for example, against the EU’s Working Time Directive. “Brexit” in its current form would no longer oblige the UK to adhere, among other, to this Directive. As early as April 2018, Prof. Michael Ford warned at an event hosted by AK EUROPA against the potential impact of Brexit on the Labour Law. The AK too, urgently warned against the danger of deregulation.
However, not only British workers might be faced with deteriorated circumstances; possible trade agreements to be concluded with Great Britain after the transition period could put labour standards in Continental Europe at risk. Trade unions have for a long time warned against such a “race to the bottom”. Point 79 of the political declaration setting out the framework for the future cooperation between the EU and the United Kingdom now expressly mentions social and employment standards. From the viewpoint of the AK this goal has to be expressed even more clearly. Hence, the AK therefore stresses the importance that further agreements with Great Britain include binding clauses for the protection of workers, consumers and the environment. The United Kingdom must be obliged to continue to apply EU standards in order to prevent unfair competition. Existing rights should be protected in future agreements by a no withdrawal clause.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) reviews, at the request of Scotland's supreme civil court, which was called upon by Members of the Scottish, the British and the European Parliament, whether it is possible to revoke the declaration of withdrawal unilaterally and if, in doing so, it would be possible for Great Britain to remain in the EU. Should the ECJ decide that Great Britain will be able to revoke the EU declaration of withdrawal without the agreement of the EU 27, it might encourage the Remainers to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement.