Blair backs down on right to strike

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Tony Blair yesterday stepped back from a confrontation with Europe by accepting a draft EU charter which includes the right to strike and to be consulted about changes in the workplace.

Tony Blair yesterday stepped back from a confrontation with Europe by accepting a draft EU charter which includes the right to strike and to be consulted about changes in the workplace.

After months of debate, Downing Street dropped earlier reservations and welcomed the text, which it approved after last-minute drafting changes. The Prime Minister's Office said that, on social and economic issues, the document "does not assert any new rights" and added that it would be a "valuable statement of the civil and political rights enjoyed by Europe's citizens".

That brought instant condemnation from the Conservatives, who described the draft as "job-destroying" and "damaging to Britain". Crucially however, the Confederation of British Industry drew back from its earlier vociferous criticism, saying the document is "a result we can live with".

Francis Maude, shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "Everybody throughout the EU, except Labour, is now adamant that this document is very likely to grow into a legally binding treaty. It will ... intrude into UK law." Many observers believe the document will come to have legal force because it will be referred to by the European Court of Justice in giving judgments.

In another sign that some entitlements had been watered down, the European Trades Union Confederation's general secretary, Emilio Gabaglio, said he is seeking "clarification concerning trade union rights". He added that "social rights - while being listed in the charter - are formulated in a way that is limiting their reach".

The central battleground emerged over workplace rights, including the right to "information and consultation". In one key change to the previous draft a reference to guaranteeing this at "all levels" was amended to "at the appropriate levels".

Both this entitlement, and the right to strike, are qualified by the phrase "in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices". That, British officials insist, prevents any possibility of creating a new entitlement to secondary industrial action.

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