EU trade unions worried that Barnier is letting UK slash workers’ rights too far in Brexit deal

‘Ratchet clauses’ on labour standards could be dropped at UK insistence 

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
@joncstone
Monday 07 December 2020 16:35
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European trade unions are worried that the UK will be able to undercut EU workers' rights under Brexit concessions being considered by Michel Barnier, The Independent has learned.

A letter from the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) to Michel Barnier warns of "concern" that compromises on the so-called "level playing field" mean they are not "sufficiently robust" to protect workers.

The warning comes just 48 hours before the end of talks, with the possibility of a deal still unclear but both sides closing in on a common text.

Trade union officials in Brussels with their ear to the ground believe Mr Barnier's team has dropped insistence on a so-called "ratchet clause" that would ensure the UK keeps its labour, product, and environmental standards at the same level as the EU.

The EU had insisted on these clauses to prevent the UK from being able to undercut the EU in the future, but is now reportedly open to a simple "non-regression" clause that would provide less protection.

"We have learned with concern that of late the conversation around the level playing field (LPF) seem to have focused mainly on the issue of state aid regulation," Luca Visentini, the general secretary of the ETUC said in the 7 December letter, seen by The Independent.

"As for avoiding giving the UK an unfair competitive advantage on labour rights, there seems to be talks around a non-regression clause but not much around the concept of a ratchet clause to ensure the parties – and the UK in particular – continue in their path of upward convergence and uphold the highest standards."

He added: "If this is indeed the case, the ETUC shares the concern of those member states that do not believe the LPF guarantees are sufficiently robust to protect their business and workers from unfair competition.

"Equally, if the enforcement of the labour provisions consists exclusively of UK domestic enforcement of labour rights, workers in Europe would not be protected against the risk of downward pressure.

"The UK government has made no mystery of its intention to use regulatory sovereignty to regain competitiveness. As a result, workers in the EU would become vulnerable to undercutting."

Under the weaker "non-regression clause" model, both parties would simply agree to not reduce their workers' rights below their current level at the end of the transition period.

But a more powerful ratchet clause, which the EU was originally insisting on, would take into account future improvements in standards, and would see both sides pledge to upgrade theirs in tandem, albeit independently.

There would be a common forum for coordinating upgrades, and a dispute resolution mechanism if one side was seen to be dragging its feet.

The letter to Michel Barnier

The "level playing field" for regulations and standards is one of the three remaining issues in regulations, alongside fishing rights and dispute resolution.

The ETUC is the largest European-level representative of trade unions and covers 89 trade union confederations in 39 different European countries. It is the European counterpart of the British TUC, which is a constituent member.

Mr Barnier told MEPs earlier on Monday that struggling trade negotiations will not continue past Wednesday, painting a gloomy picture of the "endgame" of talks

The deadline comes ahead of a summit of the 27 EU prime ministers and presidents in Brussels on Thursday. The meeting is widely seen as the last formal opportunity for the EU leaders to sign off an agreement.

Diplomats from EU member states say Mr Barnier was downbeat when he updated them earlier on Monday morning, dismissing reports that there had been a breakthrough on the issue of fishing.

He is said to have warned that the two sides were also still apart on the questions of governance, and of fair competition for British businesses – the two other longstanding sticking points.

The chief negotiator is said to have given the impression that the latter issue will be the hardest to overcome.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told Irish public broadcaster RTE that Mr Barnier had given a “very gloomy" and "downbeat” assessment of the prospects of a deal.

“Having heard from Michel Barnier this morning, really the news is very downbeat. I would say he is very gloomy, and obviously very cautious about the ability to make progress today," he said.

"There was news last night on some media sources that there was a breakthrough on fishing. That is absolutely not the case from what we’re hearing this morning.

“There really was no progress made yesterday, that’s our understanding and so we’ve got to try to make a breakthrough at some point today, before the two principals, the Commission president and the prime minister speak later on this evening.

“Unfortunately, I’d like to be giving more positive news, but at the moment these negotiations seem stalled, and the barriers to progress are still very much in place."

Back in Westminster, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly insisted that a trade agreement was "nearly there" but warned that negotiators may not be successful in time.

"The vast majority of the elements of this agreement have been resolved and we're now hanging on a small number of important areas where we don't have agreement," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The lack of progress at the weekend is bad news for the prospects of avoiding a no-deal exit from the single market, which will happen automatically on 31 December if nothing is agreed by then.

Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen are set to talk again this evening over the telephone to take stock of whether negotiators have made any ground today.

A Downing Street spokesperson appeared to dispute the deadline, telling reporters in Westminster: “Time is obviously now in very short supply, and we are in the final stages, but we are prepared to negotiate for as long as we have time available if we think an agreement is still possible."

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