There is a general view that all social change has come from the European Union. It is a view that has been promulgated during the various referendums, particularly by certain trade unions and women’s groups and is often cited by our legislators when in a difficult spot concerning the EU. It has served to keep the majority of these key social actors in the unquestioning pro-EU camp – though this is slowly changing as the true nature of the EU Commission in particular as the caretaker for corporate interests emerges and the promise of a Social Europe is well and truly buried.
We are also beginning to realise that most social change has not in fact come from Brussels, but is largely home-grown.
On the issue of workers’ rights, many workers used to refer to their “EEC days” when referring to the fourth week of annual leave? However, if we examine the issue we note that workers had three weeks of annual leave as a result of Irish legislation introduced in 1973.
An additional two days were added as a result of the first “national understanding” between unions, employers and Government in an agreement of 1979–80. A further two days were added in the Second National Understanding, 1980–81; and most unions added the twentieth day over a number of years when free collective bargaining prevailed from 1981 to 87.
As for public holidays, we can thank communist influence in the Irish trade union movement for May Day and the Church for St Patrick’s Day, Easter Monday, June Monday (formerly Whitsun), Christmas, and St Stephen’s Day. We have had the August holiday for as long as anyone can remember; and the October holiday came about when the late Michael O’Leary was Minister for Labour in the 1970s and gave this holiday as a substitute for May Day when he bowed to employers’ pressure not to grant the “Red” holiday on 1 May.
While we all know that women still get paid less than men, we are told that equal pay for women come from Europe! It did—but not because of some act of philanthropy on the part of Brussels. The idea of equal pay for equal work was introduced by the French Left government of Léon Blum in the 1930s. It stayed on the statute books in France throughout the Nazi occupation and continued up to the time of signing the Treaty of Rome in 1956. Below, you can see the Eurostat figures for 2012, expressed in percentage differences – that’s after the EU being in existence for 60 years. One would have to question their commitment!
At that time French business insisted that the other five—Italy, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—adopt equal-pay laws so that they would not be at a competitive disadvantage in the newly formed common market. So, at long last, something worth – while came from Europe—as a result of French left agitation in the thirties. Advances gained in equal pay were achieved by intense struggle by previous generations of workers and were not handed down by some benign EU Commission.
But what about the roads we have as a result of all the money that we got from Europe over the years? Shure you can get from Cork to Dublin in two hours! It’s true that Euro loot did largely build the new roads. However, the most basic rule of economics tells us that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Ireland, with 25 per cent of the European Union’s fisheries, gets around 3 per cent of the entire catch. According to the south-western fisheries organisations, we lose €1½ billion worth of fish to our EU “partners” each year. It seems that those roads are paved with mackerel!
Perhaps the biggest success resulting from EU membership is the degree of foreign direct investment in Ireland. American companies in particular use the country as a base from which to export its products, tax-free, into the huge European market.
This was particularly attractive while corporation taxes in Ireland on manufactured products remained low—between 10 and 12½ per cent with an effective rate of 2% – and even this ‘advantage’ is now under threat from the Commission. And of course, these firms can move at any time and while to that extent, they may be said to provide precarious employment, in many cases, they also develop anti – union practices which further discredit unions and weaken them and social cohesiveness even further.
On the question of social issues, divorce was legalised after two referendums. The Irish people alone made this decision.
The availability of contraception came from various radical groups of Irish people who broke the law unless common sense prevailed and the right to information and travel came about only when reluctant governments were forced to act on the X case.
Finally, it must not be forgotten that the austerity policies of the EU and its central bank, the ECB have largely been responsible for Irish children and working-age adults being more at risk of poverty or social exclusion than any other children in Western Europe, according to EU data.