Counting the Cost


June 12, 2006 16:30 | by Steve McGiffen

A warning that Poland and its neighbours are beginning to suffer critical labour shortages as a result of the outflow of mostly young, educated and often skilled workers to unskilled but better-paid jobs in Britain and western Europe.

THE United Left Group/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), the European Parliament's most progressive political formation, met in Prague recently to discuss the effects of last year's enlargement of the European Union. The GUE/NGL is, to some extent, a marriage of convenience, bringing together 41 MEPs from 16 political parties in 13 different countries and a number of - in some cases historically antagonistic - political traditions. Even their attitudes to the EU differ, with the Greek Synaspismos being the most "Europhile," the Swedish, Dutch and Danish parties solidly opposed and the rest at various points between the two.

Similarly with enlargement. Of the parties from the new member states represented in the GUE/NGL, the Cypriot AKEL was in favour of EU accession and the (Czech) Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia was against. Despite these differences, co-operation in the European Parliament continues for two reasons.

First, it is extremely difficult to work in the institution as an independent member. The GUE/NGL, recognising this, makes the obligations of membership as light as possible. It is a "confederal" group whose different components are free to take their own positions. Second, the group is not entirely a marriage of convenience, even if its 16 hearts rarely beat as one. GUE/NGL members, notwithstanding the illusions which some of them have in the possibility of reforming the EU, are the only MEPs who consistently and reliably stand up against the European Commission and its liberalising, deregulating, privatising feeding frenzy.

Interestingly, in recent years, divisions within the GUE/NGL on the question of the EU itself have ceased to have much practical significance. The group solidly opposed the planned European constitution, for example.

The discussion in Prague demonstrated that the range of attitudes to enlargement - from enthusiastic to hostile, though most parties stressed that it was up to the people of the applicant countries to decide for themselves - has effectively narrowed to the realisation that, whatever anyone may have thought beforehand, EU accession has brought few, if any, benefits to the people of the countries involved and many, many disadvantages.

As GUE/NGL chairman Francis Wurtz, of the French Communist Party, told the meeting, while the European Commission's recent report on the enlargement trumpeted the level of foreign direct investment in the new member states as a measure of success, it "said nothing about the nature of these investments nor their effects from the point of view of environmental or social criteria." Pointing to an overall unemployment rate of 15 per cent and average income levels which stand at only a quarter of those in the older member states, Wurtz noted that "the division between old and new members is growing. The only ones who are profiting are generally big corporations."

Erik Meijer, the Dutch member whose Socialist Party (SP) was the only parliamentary party to campaign for a No in the Netherlands' referendum on the 'constitution', drew attention to the problems which the enlargement was also causing in western Europe. Noting the "anxiety over cheap labour from the new member states," he said that the SP was "not against an open labour market," but that this would only be acceptable to Dutch workers if people from whatever country were employed "under conditions of equal pay for equal work."

From the new member states themselves, Czech MEP Miloslav Ransdorf said that "we were promised higher levels of investment, more employment and more prosperity. Not much of this has come to pass, while, on essential points such as the working time directive, we've gone backwards. Privatisation was a major factor in the loss of 750,000 jobs, while sanctions on agricultural overproduction meant that the country had become a net payer into the Common Agricultural Policy funds.

The effects of EU policies can only mean a continuation of mass migration from east to west as unemployment and low wages force people to look for a better life. The enrichment of British and other western European culture through immigration has long been among the most positive features of the country's and the region's life and the arrival of workers from central and eastern Europe will bring much to celebrate. As Erik Meijer pointed out in Prague, however, if such workers are brought in as cheap labour, their welcome will last only as long as the economy continues to be relatively healthy, which, in a capitalist system, can never be sustained for very long.

Moreover, while everyone should have the right to pursue a better life through migration, no-one should be forced to do so. Poland and its neighbours are beginning to suffer critical labour shortages as a result of the outflow of mostly young, reasonably educated and often skilled workers to unskilled but better-paid jobs in Britain and western Europe.

Only investment in the creation of worthwhile jobs in the new member states, jobs capable of directing people's talents and energy towards addressing social and environmental problems, coupled with measures to prevent the exploitation of migrant labour and the displacement of indigenous workers, can avert the multiple disasters to which the sudden, massive enlargement of the EU is leading.

These policies will not come from the European Commission, the unelected bureaucracy whose job is to serve the interests of big capital. Trade unions in the west need to get together with those in the new member states to organise co-ordinated pressure on their own governments to force a change of direction.

Steve McGiffen is spectrezine's editor. This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 22nd May

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