The European Parliament elections could see the emergence of a large populist bloc thwarting progress for the next five years. A big mobilisation is needed to prevent that.
The elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 will be like no previous European elections—possibly the most important since the first direct elections 40 years ago.
The major fear is of a new parliament severely disrupted by a big increase in extreme nationalist and anti-European MEPs. It means that all democrats, including but not only candidates and parties, have to be crystal-clear on one thing throughout the elections: extreme nationalists and anti-Europeans have nothing whatsoever to offer.
The challenges facing us today are enormous. Whether tackling climate change and pollution, growing inequalities, the monopoly power or tax avoidance of multinationals, the management of digitalisation, fighting terrorism, cyber-crime or fake news, the solution lies in European countries working together as a powerful bloc through the union—not with each of the member states going their own way. We simply cannot afford to try to cope with these immense problems through purely national solutions. They are not enough.
While extremists will seek to divide us—creating division and pinning blame on migrants or refugees or so-called ‘Brussels bureaucrats’—we who believe in democracy must put forward a hopeful and more inclusive vision for the future of our countries, working together in Europe, and be able to make the decisions that need to be taken.
A new social contract
That is why the European Trade Union Confederation has published its programme for the European elections. In ‘A fairer Europe for workers’, we argue for tackling the big problems that we face, for a new social contract for Europe, based on democracy and social justice, quality jobs and higher wages, and socially just transitions to a low-carbon and digital economy in which no one is left behind.
The ETUC calls for a fairer and more equal society with real opportunities for all. For this we propose new economic policies, including fairer and progressive tax systems to redistribute the wealth we all help to generate. We argue for more public and private investment to boost growth that benefits everyone—not just a few.
We call for the right to quality education to be fully implemented, so that everyone can participate in the transition to a low-carbon and digital economy.
We call for strengthened democracy, including sound social dialogue and effective collective bargaining (embracing platform and self-employed workers), as well as more democratic participation in society and the workplace.
But our task is not limited to putting forward inspiring ideas for the Europe we want. The crisis has left deep scars on many citizens, many people’s wages are worth less than a decade ago and slow economic recovery has yet to benefit many workers. People fear that EU leaders are unable or unwilling to deliver solutions to the problems that matter to them. In short, there is a job to do to convince sceptical voters that positive change is possible.
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The ETUC‘s election programme spells it out: the EU can be a force for good and positive change is possible. We have to persuade voters this is the case. Under strong pressure from trade unions and citizens, the EU did adopt a new investment programme and the European Pillar of Social Rights with new legislative initiatives to increase workers´ rights. These were important but tentative steps to putting the EU back on the right track—steps whose momentum must carry us much further.
We also need to make clear that democracy is at risk from extremists. This is to an extent we have not seen in much of western Europe since the 1930s, and since the fall of more recent dictatorships in southern and eastern Europe.
And there exists a specific problem to tackle. It is very likely that a new alliance of parties will be needed to form a democratic and pro-European majority in the European Parliament. The ‘grand coalition’ between the centre-right (EPP) and centre-left (S&D/PES) will almost certainly not be enough. All democratic forces—including the trade union movement and civil society—will need to put pressure on the democratic pro-European parties to create a new and bigger coalition to limit the influence of anti-Europeans and the extreme movements.
Otherwise we can forget about a more social and sustainable Europe, active on issues that matter for workers, for at least the next five years.
So we all need to get out there putting forward our ideas for the Europe we want, to persuade citizens to vote for democratic parties and candidates who want to work together for a better Europe for all citizens.
Katja Lehto-Komulainen is deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. She was previously head of international affairs at the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK).