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British Trade Unions against the Euro

The most important issue in British politics at the moment is the Euro. Well, that is if you ask Trade Unions Against the Single Currency (TASC)which I am working for. We have been promised a referendum on the issue but when it will take place no one knows and any guesses will be pure speculation.

Helle Hagenau, National Officer, TASC

Until know the opposition to the single currency has mainly been seen as a right-wing issue but if you ask the British people 71% say they are against and only 18% in favour of the Euro. So assuming that the population is politically balanced, many left-wingers must be opposing as well. TASC had an opinion poll conducted a year ago and the result showed the 67% of trade unionists were against the Euro. One could argue that the figure will be different today but with 71% of all Britons opposing I doubt it will be very different.

TASC has been formed to represent this majority voice. Trade union history is bound up with the development of democracy in Britain. A single currency would fundamentally remove the power of the British parliament and our trade unions.

So why are we opposing the single currency?

We believe that the Euro would be a disaster for jobs, manufacturing and public services. Unemployment in Britain is currently at 3.6% and it is the lowest rate of unemployment we have seen for almost 25 years. In the euro zone, unemployment is at 9.1%, which is 2½ times the British rate. According to the latest figures from the European Commission, Denmark has the highest level of employment at 76,5%. The next three countries are Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK all with rates higher than 70%. I think it is remarkable that the top four countries only include one country - the Netherlands -, which is in the euro zone. Also the regional unemployment in the euro zone is far higher than in Britain. In Euroland the highest regional rate is 30% whereas in Britain it is just 9.6%. The figures from the euro zone countries are nothing to be proud of - well, rather the opposite - and it is surely not the social and economic model Britain should follow.

The European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt is made up of bankers, which we cannot elect nor call to account. The governments have simply handed over power to these unelected and unaccountable men and women.

The ECB will decide interest rates in the EU's interest, not the UK's. During the past six months or so, we have seen exactly how devastating the Euro's one-size-fits-all interest rate imposed by the European Central Bank is for a country like Ireland. The Irish inflation rate of 6% is now the highest for 14 years and that is compared to an EU average of 2.5%.

Ireland's Trade Union leaders are in a panic at this high inflation rate. A few months ago they negotiated a 5% annual pay increase for the next two years with the employers and the Government. But an expected annual inflation rate of 6% or over this year will wipe out the real value of this increase.

The Republic's experience since joining the euro zone shows the unsuitability of a one-size-fits-all interest rate policy for the different countries of the zone. The ECB now sets Irish interest rates and these have halved in the past two years. But the Republic needs higher rather than lower interest rates these days, to restrain its economic boom and to counter inflation.

The convergence criteria laid out in the Maastricht Treaty put price stability before prosperity, rising living standards, economic growth or full employment. These criteria will also have to be met once a country is locked into the single currency. The difference is that now it is called The Stability Pact and countries will be fined if they do not comply with the rules. It will be up to the EU Council of Ministers to impose sanctions if a country fails to take the necessary steps to bring its economy in "order".

On the continent, we have seen massive demonstrations in France, Belgium and elsewhere in the period where these governments were trying to fulfil the convergence criteria. Demonstrations, because the governments were cutting public spending, increasing unemployment, reducing wages and worsening public services. A situation that has not changed. Well, there might not be any protesters left in the streets but the governments still have to stick to the rules, which, among other things, mean a very limited investment in public services in those countries.

All British anti-Euro organisations were very pleased about the result of the Danish Euro-referendum in which the Danes rejected the Single Currency. It was a boost for our campaign and showed that the Euro in not inevitable. Mind you, it is the first time that a nation has been consulted on this very important question. The British government tried to play down the impact the result had in this country but unsuccessfully. We have been promised a referendum on the Euro some time after the next general elections, which may take place May next year. The government is trying to delay the Euro debate until after the elections. With almost an entire British population rejecting the Euro and a Conservative Party ruling out entry in the next Parliament, the Euro is not an issue they want to discuss during an election campaign.

Trade Unions Against the Single Currency (TASC) has aired the idea of an early referendum, i.e. before the general elections. This would have two purposes. Firstly we would corner the government to an even larger extent than they are today and secondly, we would avoid discussing the Euro during the campaign with the benefits it could give the Tories and we might end up in a situation where we, the labour movement, loose the elections. Although, TASC disagrees with the current government on the Euro, they have re-introduced rights for working people and the recognition of trade unions, achievements we highly value and which previous Conservative governments abolished.

Another question, which is very high on the political agenda these days, is privatisation. The areas affected are the railways, the National Health Service, the post office and the air traffic control centre.

The British Railways were privatised during the Thatcher years and are now run by several private companies. As with most companies, their main aim is to make a profit and not to ensure the safety of the people. The body responsible for the rail tracks in Britain is earning about £1 billion a day and at the same time, we see derailments of trains due to lack of maintenance of the tracks. It is an appalling situation! Railtrack is now carrying out emergency repairs on the rail network and with speed restrictions imposed on many major routes; the passengers are facing long delays as a consequence.

Another invention is the privatisation of hospitals. During the 1980s and 1990s there was very little investment in the health sector. The education and training of nurses and doctors were cut to a minimum and the consequences are seen today. Hospitals, which used to be run by the National Health Service, are being sold to private companies. This means that the wealthy part of the population can receive treatment when and where they want it but the other part will be put on a waiting list and only receive treatment when there is a bed available. In my opinion, the waiting lists are a direct consequence of the under-investment in the health section in the past two decades. Had there been enough qualified nurses and doctors and a constant influx of money into the sector, we would not have seen the long waiting lists that are a common feature in British life today. To make the situation even more absurd, in order to cut the patients' waiting time the public authorities buy hospitals beds and surgery from the private sector.

The latest attempt to privatise a sector is the government's wish to privatise the air traffic control centre. The only country in the world to have had this idea! The bill has had the first reading in the House of Commons but has been stopped by the House of Lords, so now it will probably not get a second reading in the House of Commons before the next elections. As I stated earlier, private companies aim at making money. I think it would be a disaster if the air traffic control centre were privatised. Would we ever be safe flying to and from the UK again?

If you want to know more about Trade Unions Against the Single Currency, please visit our web site at www.tuasc.org.uk You can also write to us at TASC, 301 The Argent Centre, 60 Frederick Street, Birmingham B1 3HS, UK.

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