To Protect Workers' Rights We Must Campaign to Stay in the EU

16/09/2015 09:40 BST | Updated 16/09/2016 10:12 BST

This week we witnessed a jubilant Conservative party bring the Trade Union Bill to Parliament for its second reading. This pernicious piece of legislation - with its new turnout rules, and requirement on picketers to wear 'armbands' - aims to further undermine the rights we have to take industrial action. It's easy to forget in this context that, without the protection of EU laws, our employment and social protections would face an even greater threat.

Yesterday the Trade Union Congress' conference voted to retain the option of campaigning to leave the EU if the Prime Minister successfully waters down workers' rights protections.

I'm the first to admit that the EU is far from perfect - indeed my decade in the European Parliament as an MEP confirmed that to me. In recent times it has been locked in the hands of neoliberal national Governments who have attempted to use it to their own ends. From the cruel austerity imposed on Greece, to the disastrous Transatlantic Trade Deal (TTIP) - the EU needs urgent reform. But we must not forget that the EU's actions reflect the current political trends of major European member states. Greece is, in the main part, suffering because of Germany's intransigence. TTIP is simply an extension of the free-market logic that pervades all trade relationships negotiated by our Government and others across Europe.

The fact is that the Tories are able to attempt their brazen renegotiations of the Social Chapter and the Working Time Directive because, like it or not, they won the last General election and have a seat at the table of the European Council. For progressives to argue that we should leave the EU because we lost the General election in 2015 would be a profound mistake.

The EU is, as it stands, a real brake on further attacks on our rights. EU rules mean that we're not forced to work more than 48 hours per week, that we're entitled to four weeks paid holiday and that part time and agency workers are entitled to equal pay and conditions. Indeed at the heart of EU rules - written into the Charter of Fundamental Rights - is the right to strike.

If we want to keep these protections and strengthen them, then we need to show that we're serious about defending the principle of cross-border working. Indeed, in a world where capital moves increasingly freely, it's crucial that we have an international institution with the ability to tame the power of big business.

If those of us on the progressive side of politics threaten to leave the EU now we'll be doing a huge favour for Farage and his friends. Either we believe in working internationally on the shared issues we face, or we don't. Rather than standing on the sidelines and shouting for a better EU we must commit to the principle of its existence - and fight to make it better.

To reform the EU we should start with two things: Firstly we must campaign for real changes to the way European institutions run - curtailing the power of the unelected Commission and handing proper law-making abilities to the MEPs we elect to represent us. And secondly progressives have to win the argument (and forthcoming elections) here at home. A progressive EU is possible, but only when it is made up of progressive Governments from across our continent.

It's a shame that the TUC is wavering on supporting EU membership - but their hesitance should be a wakeup call for pro-EU progressives.

Now is the time to stand with friends and allies across Europe in working for a better EU - not retreat back within our borders and try to go it alone.