EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: Read it before you vote on 23 June

A People’s Charter

Of the many strange aspects of the debate over the Brexit referendum I should add how little stress the Remain camp gives to EU protection of human rights.  I should expect this from the Conservatives.  Since long before he became prime minister, David Cameron pledged that he would opt-out from the “EU Social Chapter”, then attempted unsuccessfully to do that during his negotiations last year in Brussels.

However, when I went to the website of Labour In For Britain, I was more than a bit disappointed that the centre-piece video designed to convince people to vote “yes” makes no mention of any aspect of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.  It is listed further down the web page, but without a link to the Charter itself.  The video, all 93 seconds of it, focuses only on “jobs”, “investment” and “exports”.  This makes its pitch hardly distinguishable from the position of the Cameron government (whose website is more elaborate).  

The most sophisticated pro-EU web page is that of Momentum, which lists Charter-related issues as the first three of twenty reasons to vote “yes”.  The recent and welcome entry of Ed Miliband into the debate may increase the emphasis on making the political case for membership Labour’s priority.

Of all the positive reasons for EU membership, the jobs-investment-exports arguments are the weakest.  For any intelligent opponent of EU membership, and there are some, the export argument is easily dismissed.  That UK exports of goods to other EU countries have grown slower over the last ten years than rest-of-the-world exports is one of the first points any Brexiter is likely to make.

Without inspecting the statistics in any detail, the Leavers have a more obvious and clinching argument.  If exports of goods create jobs in the UK, then by the same logic imports must reduce them -- French exports create jobs in France, Italian exports create jobs in Italy, etc.  But our EU trade balance has been persistently negative.  Over the first three months of this year it was minus £24 billion and with the rest-of-the-world only minus £9 billion. 

The logical extension of the export argument is that UK trade does not create jobs, it reduces them because we have an overall deficit.  This conclusion is absurd, but Labour In For Britain must implicitly concede that conclusion when it makes its “job creation” argument.  The foreign investment argument is no less flawed.  Investment “creates jobs” by building factories, offices and building sites where people work.  Constructing a convincingly argument that foreign investment has a net positive effect on employment requires showing that no UK company would have made each specific investment. 

Some foreign investment adds to total UK investment; some seizes opportunities UK companies could otherwise have taken; and some may have a net negative effect on total employment (for example, by sourcing its inputs from abroad in an industry that previously used domestic suppliers).  To write that “£26.5 billion is invested in Britain by EU countries every year” (displayed prominently on the Labour In for Britain site) and expect people to toss their hats in the air and vote “yes” treats the public as economically illiterate and gullible.

These naïve and misleading arguments need not be made, because we have an obvious and much more powerful case we can make – the benefits from the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.  The Charter is perhaps the most progressive governmental guarantee of individual rights in the world, far more explicit and extensive than, for example, the US Bill of Rights

The Charter includes prohibition against discrimination based on racism (with separate sections for the Roma, homophobia, anti-Semitism and Muslim hatred).  In addition, it supports a broad range of human rights:

1) prohibition of the death penalty in all member states (Article 2);

2) freedom of assembly and association, including an explicit right to join trade unions (Article 12);

3) right to collective bargaining and “collective action” including the right to strike (Article 28);

4) protection against unjustified dismissal in accordance with EU and national laws (Article 30); and

5) guarantee of working conditions consistent with dignity, safety and health, including work breaks, maximum hours and paid vacation (Article 31)

Article 34 provides for an additional range of rights for working people:

- “recognises and respects the entitlement to social security benefits and social services providing protection in cases such as maternity, illness, industrial accidents, dependency or old age, and in the case of loss of employment, in accordance with the rules laid down by Union law and national laws and practices;

-   “everyone residing and moving legally within the European Union is entitled to social security benefits and social advantages in accordance with Union law and national laws and practices; and

- “to combat social exclusion and poverty, the Union recognises and respects the right to social and housing assistance so as to ensure a decent existence for all those who lack sufficient resources, in accordance with the rules laid down by Union law and national laws and practices.”

As important as these protections are themselves, the Charter specifies how people can seek redress if an employer or government (including the European Commission) violates the specified rights. 

To the items listed in the articles of the Charter, EU law adds the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit torture, forced labour and protect personal freedoms not covered in the Charter.  Endorsing the Convention gives the European Court of Human Rights jurisdiction in all EU countries.

The Conservative government has made it clear that given the opportunity it would cancel both the Charter and the Convention in Britain.  The Cameron government would create a so-called UK Bill of Rights, whose purpose would not be to replace but to eliminate the guarantees that come with EU membership. 

Brexit would be major step along the path to completion of the neoliberal project for Britain.  The elimination of worker rights would enable more intensive exploitation of labour.  What remains of British industry would pollute unconstrained by EU environmental rules.  The post-Brexit Tory government could pass international agreements such as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership unrestrained by opposition on the continent.  

The economic case for British membership in the European Union is weak, and in detail it constitutes the special pleading of the eponymous 1%.  By contrast, the political case for membership serves the interest of the vast majority.  The referendum on 23 June can be won on the basis of the latter, not the former.

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London and co-convenor of Economists for Rational Economic Policies, EREP. This article was published on OpenDemocracy (19th June 2016),