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Exiting the EU – Defending our rights and securing our public services

For workers in public services, Brexit is a hot topic. Colleagues in the hospital where I work often ask me, ‘what on earth is going on?’ with conversations rarely going beyond what a shambles it all is. In a country that is hugely divided over Europe, there is one issue that appears to unify many remain and leave supporters. That Brexit is a complete and utter mess.

And there’s little wonder public service workers are feeling like this. Nearly two and a half years after the referendum, and only a matter of months before the UK is set to leave the EU, the government is in crisis. It’s unlikely to muster the majority needed to pass its draft Withdrawal Agreement, and May has allowed the meaningful vote in parliament to be delayed until January.

As the largest trade union in the country with 1.3 million members, UNISON cannot accept May’s deal nor a no deal, as both pose a great threat to the workers we represent and the public services they provide.

Although critical of the EU’s agenda, UNISON backed staying in the EU and most trade union members supported us in that call, according to TUC research. We have accepted the result even though we don’t accept some of the claims made by the Leave campaign.

What we cannot accept though is the direction outlined in the political declaration. The Conservative vision is of a free trade deal that would promote a new race to the bottom for workers’ rights, consumer standards and environmental regulation, and open up public services to global liberalisation.

Our members campaigned vigorously against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and other global free trade agreements for the very same reasons. That they would undermine rights and protections along with our key public services, and enable multinationals to challenge those rights and services in opaque courts of arbitration. We cannot allow exiting the EU to take us further down that path.

Protecting workers rights

Many of the rights workers enjoy today resulted from the EU. The transition period in the withdrawal agreement would see current rights safeguarded. However, UK workers would start to fall behind the protections offered to other workers in the EU because only rights implemented before the end of the transition period would apply.

Peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland

With UNISON members crossing our only land border on a daily basis, Northern Ireland and preventing a hard border is key for UNISON. An advocate for peace we are proud of our role in the Good Friday Agreement, and the one we continue to play in promoting peace. 

The reckless way that some discounted the impact of peace in Northern Ireland is a disgrace. A hard border would be a disaster and appear to be an unwelcome return to the times of army and police checkpoints.

The backstop position has become the focus of much attention because, as weak as it is, it does make provision for rights not to fall below common EU-UK standards. This border agreement also includes some limited protection for human rights and equality, issues so important to both sides of the community who are dealing with the legacy of conflict.

We fully support the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), representing workers on both sides of the border, whose position is that a no deal scenario is unacceptable. 

The future relationship UNISON wants to see

UNISON has created six tests that a future EU-UK deal would have to pass. Based on our annual conference decision, these are aimed at protecting our members’ rights, and public services:

  1. Protect existing health and safety and workers rights through a level playing field of regulations, with a non-regression clause, an enforcement mechanism and accessible dispute mechanism that enforces the adherence and future upgrade on these rights.
  2. Protect public services from a bad economic deal that will prevent growth of the UK economy, continue public service austerity instead of increased funding, lower living standards and offer less training and skills opportunities for workers.
  3. Keep UK public services out of global trade deals, maintain only the existing beneficial social provisions in public procurement regulations, expand the right to public ownership and the positive use of State Aid.
  4. Safeguard rights, standards and regulations (e.g. employment, health and safety, consumer and environment) and any new EU measures in the future so that they cannot be weakened in the UK through any future trade deals with non-EU countries like the USA.
  5. Maintain existing equality and human rights, EU citizen rights, EU freedom of movement.
  6. Prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, uphold the Good Friday Agreement and respect the devolution legislation of the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

UNISON does not believe that these tests are met by the proposed deal outlined by the Prime Minister. Labour’s plans though for a comprehensive EU-UK customs arrangement and access to a new single market deal have the best chance of meeting them.

We are therefore calling for a general election and for the election of a Labour government.

But, as the withdrawal date draws nearer, we’re clear that no deal is no option, thatan election will take time to hold, and a new deal time to negotiate.

The message from all this is that Parliament needs to take control, seek to extend or withdraw article 50, and work together. This is the only way to prevent the UK crashing out without a deal.

And it’s the only way to resolve the turmoil that currently is Brexit.

James Anthony is a member of UNISON's National Executive Council

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