I’M starting to feel like we’re dancing a political can-can, writes Bill Adams, TUC Yorkshire & Humber Secretary.
There’s been so much talk recently about whether we remain in or leave the EU’s single market, but most of the chatter has been focused on what this would mean for internal political party struggles, leadership contenders and the great divide between Remainers and Leavers at Westminster.
I’m sick of it. I want to talk about what it means for working people, and challenge those who claim that staying in the single market would be a betrayal of the June 2016 referendum result.
The Brexiteers argue that it’s because we would be forced to accept free movement and an uncontrolled number of EU migrants to enter the UK, taking jobs, lowering wages and putting pressure on schools, housing and hospitals.
But that’s not really the case. Many EU and non-EU countries in the single market choose to enforce stricter rules on migration than the UK does. The choice of an open door policy is that of the UK government, not EU rules.
Like many other single market members, the UK could restrict public sector jobs to UK nationals; require migrants to register with their local authority; or negotiate to limit the number of European nationals entering the country.
These policies would not necessarily be endorsed by the TUC, but they are all things the Government could do without leaving the single market, and there are other creative solutions that we should explore. But there’s more.
This Government could do much more to manage the impact of migration and allay concerns about undercutting and pressure on public services.
It could invest in enforcement of workers’ rights and the national minimum wage and make sure that agency workers and “posted” workers couldn’t be used to undercut local labour markets. And it could promote collective bargaining and a stronger role for unions in workplaces to stop exploitation.
To deal with concerns about pressure on public services, the Government should abandon underfunding of schools and hospitals, crack down on rogue landlords and start a building programme for the council houses the UK needs. These policies would reduce the competition between existing residents and new arrivals which has done such harm to community relations.
These immigration controls would respond to voters’ concerns about migration, giving us more control, without leaving our biggest trading partner, or making it harder for nurses or fruitpickers to come to the UK.
I understand and empathise with workers’ concerns about migration. Instead it is the economic arguments that I have found most frustrating.
Brexiteers argue that by leaving the single market we open ourselves up to a world of trading opportunities, and leave behind the harmful protectionism of the EU. They argue that we can do a massive trade deal with the USA instead.
I am concerned that this argument ignores serious issues which will matter to hard-working Yorkshire folk. In short, what are we going to do about chlorinated chicken and Tata Steel?
I’m not going to argue about the rights or wrongs of eating chlorinated chicken, but it’s a good example of the pressures our domestic poultry industry will be under outside the single market.
The NFU has estimated that because of the protections the EU places around British farming, if we leave the single market, imports of poultry could rise by 29 per cent. Many farmers would go out of business as a result.
This isn’t even the worst scenario. Imports of beef would increase 106 per cent, meaning almost all British cattle farmers would go bust.
But it doesn’t stop at farming. UK steel can only compete with Chinese imports because the EU uses the Market Defence Mechanisms of the single market to prevent them flooding the UK with steel.
China produces steel on such a massive scale that Yorkshire manufacturers would struggle to compete. So the EU ensures this vital, traditional section of the Yorkshire economy, which employs thousands across Rotherham and Sheffield stays alive and healthy. With the protections of the single market, steel can still be made where it should be.
Of course we should consider all the options. But based on the facts, and our century and a half of experience in employment and economic issues, the TUC believes staying in the single market is the best way to protect jobs and workers’ rights.
Bill Adams is regional secretary of TUC Yorkshire & Humber