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Trade unions tackling populism
Peter Scherrer

Trade unions tackling populism

‘The Andalusians have made history,’ said the national Vox party leader, Santiago Abascal, on election night in the Spanish region in December, claiming a ‘triumph’. This was the most recent success for a far-right populist party entering a democratically elected parliament in Europe. Asylum policy and unemployment, especially among young people, were the dominant themes in the election campaign, with the losers on election night—as so often across Europe—including the social-democratic, left-wing parties. Figures show significantly more men than women give their votes to right-wing populist parties.

Because union members are not immune to xenophobic and nationalist propaganda, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and its institute (ETUI) are even more involved than in the past in examining the reason for the growing ‘attractiveness’ of right-wing populist parties.

Attacking the ‘elites’

Populist parties equate globalisation with the loss of national sovereignty, the liberalisation of the economy and the deregulation of industrial relations. Populism is directed in particular against the elites seen as benefiting from globalisation. For populist parties, these elites are found in the ruling establishment—in the established parties, among business leaders, the ‘mainstream media’ and also union ‘bosses’. Populists represent themselves as the champions of the ‘little people’.

Right-wing populist parties, as a remedy for these threats, are proposing to retreat into the narrow confines of the nation, which guarantees solidarity through a supposed national identity. Xenophobia and more-or-less open racism are the propagandist, rhetorical glue that keeps these ‘solutions’ together.

Populists of all stripes have long since identified the European Union as a common enemy across Europe, alleged to trigger and reinforce national and regional disadvantages. These shared anti-European sentiments are clearly highlighted in the elections to the European Parliament. It is claimed that the EU needs reform. In truth, however, populists want to downsize the union and even threaten to leave it. The shift of basic political, economic, social and financial powers back to the nation-state unites populists across Europe. They reject the basic EU treaties on the single market and currency.

Significantly, populism also affects parts of the middle class. This makes it clear that social decline and impoverishment are not the sole fuel for populism, but rather the fear of change and possible loss. On many issues of wealth distribution, infrastructure and participation, populists’ criticisms undoubtedly address real concerns.

Fair and sustainable globalisation

Trade unions must lead the debate on the future shape of the European internal market and globalisation more openly and ambitiously. We see not only threats but also opportunities. Fair and sustainable globalisation can lead to a socially equitable increase in wealth among trading partners and in the countries of the European Union.

But for that we need a fundamental policy change. The EU, and in particular the European Parliament as the legitimate representative of European citizens, has the task of setting rules for economic and social fairness and sustainability and imposing them across Europe.

The EU’s ‘prosperity promise’ must apply to all, not just the strong. In Germany, too, we have to admit that we are only well-off if our European neighbours are doing well too. There cannot be a lasting split in the union between globalisation winners and losers. The ‘distribution justice’ project must start now, here and today! For example, the objectives of the ETUC’s campaign ‘Europe needs a pay rise’ need to be pursued more decisively than ever before.

Rural areas need special attention and help. Public services of general interest, access to education and participation in social development must be available to all citizens, no matter where they live. Digitalisation can make many things easier. The objectives must be set with the broad participation of stakeholders and actions implemented quickly—and their fulfilment must be monitored transparently. This transcends the framework of traditional regional policy, because it covers all fields of action for trade unions. They need to readjust and strengthen their regional presence. Especially here, trade unions must demonstrate their human side, and can thereby build lasting credibility.

Despite social media, personal contact and direct contact are of the utmost importance. It goes without saying that trade unions must address media and public rallies, demonstrations and protests against xenophobia, racism and nationalist politics. At the same time, trade unionists and works councils must take sides in the workplace, in companies and administrations against the exclusionist and misanthropic policies of right-wing populists.

Structural reform of the EU

Trade unions need to clarify their position on fair and sustainable globalisation and on a thorough political reform of the European Union. This must be the subject of trade-union debate, education and public relations. It is not just about achieving a ‘Social Europe’.

Trade unions bear the responsibility for an outgoing dialogue, issuing in a new reform approach for Europe and its institutions. The 14th Congress of the ETUC in May provides an excellent platform for discussion of a fundamental structural overhaul of Europe. It is time for a politico-social manifesto to be discussed throughout the EU.

About Peter Scherrer

Peter Scherrer is deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, Brussels. In advance of the European Parliament elections, he is working to preserve and develop a free, democratic and social Europe. This contribution is influenced by an intensive debate about the future of Europe with the ‘thorough European’ Reinhard Kuhlmann (former general secretary of the European Metalworkers’ Federation).