Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mixed Messages

EU Observer carries a very interesting report on two opinions from advocates general of the European Court of Justice, both relating to the way national trade union rights may impact on the functioning of the single market. The issues involved are potentially very significant, but a little bit complicated so as usual the BBC doesn't even report the story on its 'Europe' section, but prefers to headline the more easily digestible cap on mobile phone roaming fees, and even there forget to mention that it's the many of us whose bill is primarily for domestic calls who will subsidise the few who roam a lot.

The usual health warning needs to be quoted,
'The advocate general's opinion is not binding but in the majority of cases the final ruling, expected in the coming months, is similar.'

Well, perhaps, but there are a pattern, which these opinions fall into, of the final ruling not being at all similar where the original opinion actually suggests a limitation on EU powers.

On the surface it all seems like pretty small beer but, looking at the kind of precedents being set, there are clearly some very important principles at stake. I'm not sure though whether the advocates general position represents a further reason for me to condemn the whole EU project, or a faint glimmer of common sense.

To take a positive view of both opinions, which are on similar subjects, the position taken has been that the 'functioning of the Internal Market' (the replacement for 'Health and Safety' as the EU's preferred democracy bypass mechanism) cannot be used to override national settlements, such as those on trade union rights, that the country in question sees as being intrinsic to its social model. So far, so good. I find the Swedish and Finish principles that were under threat a complete anathema, being a collection of backward looking collective agreements, and rights to strike that can only be harmful in the long term. That said, they are what Swedes and Finns in sufficient numbers clearly believe work for them and everyone else should accept that, even companies wishing to operate in the respective countries.

I was therefore tempted to take issue with the Conservative MEP, Richard Ashworth, quoted in the article as saying,
"The court must not allow trade union blockades to dictate the terms of the EU single market."

My first reaction was to say, 'no it should not, but it should just keep its nose out, which is pretty much what it is doing'. I'm sure my views on trade union blockades are pretty similar to Mr Ashworth's, but would be loathed to see the ECJ grabbing powers over trade union rights. Wasn't the possibility that the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the proposed European Constitution would lead to ECJ judicial activism on trade union rights, one of the many reasons put forward by Conservatives that the appalling document should be ditched? My personal feeling is that you need to be consistent and that, even if the ultimate outcome is not one to my liking, I should welcome the refusal of the court to act in this area.

All of that said though, the overall tone of the opinions is rather worrying.

There is an undertone that suggests that, if the cases before them had held the possibility to extend the rights of trade unions through ECJ action, the result might have been different. It seems that the POL brigade in the parliament have read it this way which is worrying in of itself.

The article quotes German green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter:
"the advocate general has indicated that cross-border service provision cannot result in a race to the bottom in terms of wages."

Well, as it happens the advocate general hasn't quite indicated that, but I understand the POL need to retreat from the reality which has so brutalised their ideology, and I'm pretty sure at some point a future advocate general will try to ram more union rights down our throats.

It is pretty significant that on other areas, where national settlements surrounding particular social models have been challenged before the ECJ, the court has been more than willing to act to enforce a European model, such as in it's ridiculous pronouncements around the working time directive.

I think it's time they came clean and admitted that in addition to its written rules in the existing treaties, and the well know de facto rule, that the there are no rules when it comes to extending EU 'competencies', that another fundamental principle is applied in rulings such as this. I think that a simple statement that,
"The ECJ shall act to eliminate any form of national independence wherever possible, other than in such cases where a greater level of left-wing stupidity can be preserved in a member state through inaction."

...should be made public. We know the rule is already in place; it's only fair they be open about it.

Update 10:52AM 24th May: Someone at the BBC obviously got mummy or daddy to explain the opinion to them in simple terms last night, so, doubtlessly after a quick pro-EU spin cycle, they've just managed to get it up on their web site.

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