Interview with Bernadette Ségol, general secretary of ETUC
“It is totally unfounded to believe that European competitiveness requires weak unions”
By Sophie Petitjean | Monday 12 September 2011
On the eve of the special eurozone summit, on 21 July, Bernadette Ségol criticised the European Union’s punitive strategy. For the new general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), it is in everyone’s interest to save Greece through European solidarity. She also called for a halt to attacks on collective bargaining and social dialogue “by the European Commission in member states in trouble and elsewhere”. The European trade unions will defend this message, she added, at a Euro-demonstration, on 17 September in Warsaw, Poland.
The special eurozone summit, on 21 July, will focus on Greece and the financial stability of the euro area. What do you expect from this meeting?
It is high time for Europe’s leaders to develop a clear and long-term vision of what is needed for the Union, namely to ensure economic development and financial stability that leads to growth and sustainable jobs. For us, these solutions are tied to a certain number of elements: we support eurobonds and other financial mechanisms that pool part of the debt. We also support a tax on financial transactions to halt speculation, and lastly a fair taxation system that puts an end to tax evasion.
The ETUC recommends a solidarity pact for Greece. What does that imply?
Saving Greece implies above all saving the eurozone in everyone’s interest. The emphasis has to be on this solidarity. That is why we are calling for a ‘solidarity pact’ that is both moral and economic. It is obvious that the governments should not have fiddled with the accounts, but Greece should not be punished. We can’t ask it to do the impossible. Under today’s conditions Greece cannot repay its debt, even if it applies the austerity plan (recommended by the EU). This has become clear for a number of political leaders, even if they only say so off the record.
What do you think of the measures taken so far by the European Union to achieve competitiveness?
There is a huge difference, not to say a gulf, between discourse and reality. We are seeing virulent attacks by the European Commission against collective bargaining and social dialogue in particular (among other aspects) in the countries in trouble. The Troika, for example, went to Greece and urged the authorities to abolish sectoral negotiations and to use intra-company negotiations instead. The Commission recommended going further than the six proposals being reviewed by Parliament. It is totally unfounded to believe that European competitiveness requires weak unions.
We will denounce this approach on 17 September in Warsaw (Poland), when the EU’s finance ministers meet. This Euro-demonstration will protest in particular against austerity plans and anti-trade union measures and the destruction of social dialogue structures taking place in different member states (particularly in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland). For the ETUC, competitiveness will result more from social dialogue, collective bargaining and national and European discussions combined with a programme to boost research and innovation capacities than from cuts in salaries and social benefits.
For BusinessEurope, the ‘euro plus pact’, pension reform and the abolition of wage indexing, against which you demonstrated on 21 June, are not austerity measures. How do you respond to that?
We denounce as austerity the emphasis that is placed on salaries and workers, instead of being placed on income. Look at the country recommendations. They always reduce wage levels and social protection and encourage liberalisation. Obviously there are levels in this austerity. The programmes recommended to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and now Italy are very severe austerity programmes. There are less severe programmes for other countries because their situation is less dangerous. In fact, for us, everything depends on whether solutions are negotiated and fair.
How do you react to the Commission’s proposal to introduce a tax on financial transactions in the next multiannual financial framework?
We welcome the principle, since this is the first time the Commission has ever recognised the possibility of levying such a tax. I haven’t seen any details on the rate of the tax or its objective, however. It is clear for us that such a tax must be used to encourage sustainable investments and jobs. We will also be vigilant to make sure that it does not aim solely to compensate for the lower contributions by member states. Moreover, unless I’m mistaken, I believe that the Commission plans to begin levying it in 2018. We would like to see it happen sooner.
The ETUC newsletter announces a “new medium and long-term campaign”. What will it focus on exactly?
The objective is to respond over the medium and longer term to judgements by the EU Court of Justice concerning equal treatment at the workplace. For the ETUC, salary and working conditions must be the same for workers who do the same thing, whoever their employers may be. We are setting up a working group that will decide on the practical arrangements for this campaign by the end of 2011. We hope to reach a decision on action in two or three years. The end of the current European Parliament legislature would be a good deadline.
What is the unions’ position on revision of the Working Time Directive and on the Commission’s announced proposals on the posting of workers?
On working time, we are willing to negotiate with the other social partners but this should be a general discussion. Employers want to limit the discussion to on-call time and absenteeism, however, in other words to our advantages. That is why we proposed a period of clarification (until 15 September), to see whether we have a solid basis for future negotiations between the social partners.
On the posting of workers, our concern is to ensure equal treatment in line with rules and collective agreements in the host country, not in the country of origin. For the ETUC, the Commission’s intention of clarifying the existing rules is not enough. We want a revision of the directive and a social protocol at European level that gives priority to fundamental rights over economic rights. In our opinion, that is the only way to move beyond the misunderstandings created by the Court of Justice rulings, which give priority to economic rights.