After 10 years of economic crisis and austerity, the first signs of a European spring?

It is ten years since the financial crisis of 2007-8. Ten years lost and wasted. […]


It is ten years since the financial crisis of 2007-8. Ten years lost and wasted. Ten dark years that have been like an ice age in which the hopes and aspirations of working people were frozen. A banking crisis led to government debt crisis. Economic crisis led to political crisis. The austerity medicine mistakenly chosen by the EU and member states has created widespread disillusion, and a backlash against Europe. Violent conflict in neighbouring regions, unprecedented numbers of refugees fleeing to safety in Europe, and terrorism at home have added to the sense of crisis.


Are we now seeing the first signs of a European spring? Clearly Europe is now discovering some slow growth and the gradual retreat of mass unemployment. But recession followed by tentative recovery is no cause for celebration. Instead, what offers some encouragement are signs of the reversal of the rise of anti-European and anti-foreigner forces, of an emerging political debate about more worker-friendly policies, increasing wages and tackling inequality. Fairness and the needs of working people are coming back to the political agenda.

The shock of the political fallout from the economic crisis has over the last year created a mood of reflection on the future – of Europe, of globalisation. Mainstream politicians on the left and right know they face extinction unless they address working people’s concerns. Perhaps the penny has dropped.

EU institutions are now releasing funds for investment, talking up wage rises and even increased public spending. The European Commission has forced an EU debate on a European Pillar of Social Rights, on the social dimension of the EU and fairer globalisation. On the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome national Governments pledged to work towards a social Europe which promotes economic and social progress. On Brexit, EU member states appear unanimous in agreement.

After Brexit and Trump, voters have rejected far-right candidates for president in Austria and France, and kept a far-right party out of Government in the Netherlands. Let’s not get carried away.

Austerity is not dead

The EU’s Stability and Growth Pact is a straight jacket preventing many countries from investing in better public services and jobs and growth. But some European leaders are now pushing for more flexibility, for an end to austerity, for more room for growth-friendly economic policies and to ease the burden on working people who have borne the brunt of the crisis.

New policies are far from being established as the new consensus. The European Pillar of Social Rights is long overdue, could be more ambitious, and might yet be killed off by hostile Governments and employers.


The humanitarian refugee crisis is not resolved. Refugees are stuck in Turkey, Libya and the Balkans. Trade unions must redouble our efforts in calling for a fair redistribution of refugees across Europe and in working with employers to integrate refugees into the workplace.

And the world is not standing still after the crisis. There are many difficult challenges ahead. Brexit was not the choice of the ETUC or of British trade unions, and we need to continue to insist that the rights of working people and citizens must be paramount. The growth of bogus self-employment, temporary or part-time work, and other precarious jobs are the dark side of today’s slowly reducing unemployment, and must be challenged by trade union organising and ultimately new laws. Digitalisation and climate policies need to be accompanied by intelligent strategy for a just transition that equip working people and industrial regions to adapt and create new jobs.

The humanitarian refugee crisis is not resolved. Refugees are stuck in Turkey, Libya and the Balkans. Trade unions must redouble our efforts in calling for a fair redistribution of refugees across Europe and in working with employers to integrate refugees into the workplace.

I sense an opportunity. Some signs of movement in the right direction, and what is needed from all progressives is a strong push. Now is the moment, not to proclaim yet another setback, but to push harder than ever for what working people desperately need: increased public investment and services, and to tackle inequality through decent social protection, fair taxation, fair wages and good working conditions across every EU member state.

It’s also the moment for trade unions to be more active than ever in efforts to manage digitalisation and climate action to ensure that working people are not left on the scrap heap, to manage globalisation, to reduce persistent gender and regional inequalities. Trade unions need to demand action on these challenges throughout the trade union movement, with employers and government at every level from the local to the EU-wide.

Let’s seize this marginally better moment – it’s the most promising for ten years. Let’s keep our ambition high, our action strong and sound, let’s make alliances with those who want to build a social Europe for working people.


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