Trade union conference in Prague to define the role of unions in an expanded EU

Milan Stech and Emilio Gabaglio

The European Trade Union Confederation, which makes up the largest confederation of trade unions in the world, will be holding its tenth annual congress here in Prague in late May. This is the first time that the congress will be held in a former communist country. John Monks is the general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress in Britain, and also the future president of the European Trade Union Confederation.

"It's very symbolic that we come to a country which will shortly become a member of the European Union. As Europe extends eastwards it is very good to come to Prague, to repay our sense of debt, in that the Western side of Europe has had a better time of it from 1945. Europe has now been reunited, and we come to this beautiful city to pay tribute to the people who fought for democracy, and also to look at what we are going to do to build a better trade union movement, not just in Western Europe but also in Central and Eastern Europe."

The goal of the European Trade Union Confederation is to serve as a counterbalance to the economic forces of European integration, which will take on a new dimension with the forthcoming expansion eastwards. The main topics of the upcoming conference are social and employment-related issues, and the role trade unions can play in them. I asked Mr Monks what role Czech trade unions would play in an enlarged European Union.

"I think it's an opportunity. It will mean greater inclusion into the strongest trade union movement in the world, which is the trade union movement in Western Europe at the moment. I am hoping that we can redirect our power to extend the grip, influence and reach of unions in Central and Eastern Europe so that they are more powerful, more influential and can do more on behalf of the working people of these countries."

Concerning the free movement of labor, the European Union has decided to limit free movement for accession countries - meaning it will be each member state's decision to allow it or not. Do you think this is a problem, considering that in the past it was feared that with Portugal and Spain it could have been a problem, but it never really was. Do you think it could be a problem today?

"You never quite know what's going to happen if an economy collapses, then you get a lot of immigrants and so on. But the European Union, so far, has confounded all the people who were worried. As you said about Spain and Portugal, they didn't flood the rest of the European Union. The Irish have been very successful, they used to send a lot of immigrants to Britain, they send very few now, they don't have to go like they did in the past. The experience has been very positive all the way around and richer countries have gotten richer but the poorer countries have gotten a lot richer, the gap has narrowed. So that's the formula so far, and lets hope that it is the formula for the new accession countries as well."

Authors: Martin Hrobský , Marta Hudoušková
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