Brexit is currently a topic intensely discussed at many events in Brussels. However, not much light has been shed so far on the question what impact Brexit will have on workers in the United Kingdom and in the EU. To fill this gap, AK EUROPA and ÖGB Europabüro, the Brussels Office of the Austrian Trade Union Federation, dedicated an event to this issue, which took place on 11 April 2018. Participants of the discussion were Prof. Michael Ford, QC, University of Bristol Law School, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), Erich Foglar, President of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) and Barbara Spinelli, Member of the European Parliament (GUE/NGL). The discussion was moderated by Esther Lynch, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Federation (ETUC).
Michael Ford, Professor at Bristol University, has prepared a Legal opinion for the British Trades Union Congress TUC, in which he addresses the potential impact of Brexit on labour law. Many labour law standards of the United Kingdom have their origin in European law. The European law has a significant influence in particular on the development of British law in respect of non-discrimination, protection of pregnant workers, protection with regard to part-time jobs, in case of fixed-term jobs as well as regards temporary work, health and safety at work as well as collective rights. For example, in Great Britain, the right to paid leave was only introduced in the late 1990s, pursuant to European law. British courts also assumed an important function and gradually adopted the judgements of ECJ. Even though in many cases the British legislator only provided for a minimum implementation of European law, these are nevertheless important safeguards for British workers.
Due to Brexit, there is anxiety that as soon as the protection of European law and the ECJ no longer applies, important safeguarding provisions of the labour law will either be watered down or entirely abolished. Due to the United Kingdom's constitutional situation, the future legislator is almost completely free to reduce labour and social standards. It is not possible to predict in advance which provisions might be deregulated. Due to the thrust of prominent radical Brexit supporters and historical experience, Prof. Ford in particular regards the working time regulations, health and safety regulations and collective rights as especially at risk.
Against the background of the negotiations on an agreement on the future cooperation between the EU and the United Kingdom, and moreover, especially in case of a “hard Brexit”, the danger of a competition for the lowest labour law standards increases.
Frances O´Grady, General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), regards Great Britain remaining in the European Single Market and in the Customs Union as the currently best possible solution to maintain social standards. Those, who voted for Brexit, did not vote for worse labour and social standards. Instead, said O’Grady, the lowering of social standards over the past years and decades had led to the voting result. Apart from that, she warned against a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which would undo the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement, which had been signed 20 years ago.
Barbara Spinelli, MEP (GUE/NGL), pointed out that right from the beginning, the EU had not been a predominantly social project. Hence, she found it remarkable that in particular Great Britain with her neoliberal tendencies had voted in favour of leaving the EU and that she now no longer wanted to recognise the four fundamental freedoms of the Union - predominantly instruments of market liberalisation -, because they are bound to certain minimum standards.
ÖGB President Erich Foglar pointed out that the withdrawal of the United Kingdom would for the first time mean the reversal of the European Project. Hence, he called Brexit the greatest setback of the European integration process for 45 years. The efforts, which now had to be invested to limit economic and social damage are immense. The No of the British people also stood for the failure of a model of the EU, which is unilaterally fixated on the economic principle of the Single Market. Hence, the current Brexit negotiations will require more than a discussion as regards the future structure of the trade relations between the EU and the United Kingdom. The future of the EU itself is at stake and has to be addressed. According to Foglar, the interest of workers as well as social and environmental objectives have to be moved to the centre of politics.