Fine Gael’s Enterprise, Trade & Employment spokesman Leo Varadkar this morning has stated it will introduce legislation which recognises the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining if elected to government. Every time Mr Varadkar speaks, I feel an unmistakable whiff of sulphur, but his argument takes the battle to the likes of Cóir who have been scare-mongering on the issue of the minimum wage which the Lisbon Treaty has no relation to. As he put it, “The Charter on Fundamental Rights enshrines in European law a number of protections for workers. These include the right to information and consultation, maternity leave and limits on working hours. All of these rights already apply in Ireland; only the right to collective bargaining does not. Fine Gael believes that this government and any future Fine Gael Government is honour bound to respect the Charter by enacting collective bargaining legislation.’
While the Lisbon Treaty is far from perfect, these clauses in the Charter are far more in the vein of the more ethical Rhineland capitalism of the Germans and French where a company is an institution serving (in theory at least) anyone who “holds a stake” in its operation, specifically: clients, suppliers, employees, stockholders, and the surrounding social community — in that order than the neo-liberal “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism, as practiced in the United States and the UK. Whereas Rhineland capitalism serves “stakeholders,” variously defined and embraces (albeit slightly reluctantly), Anglo-Saxon capitalism serves shareholders and elevates the concept of shareholder (quick-profit obsessed property-owners, effectively) above all else. The distinction can be differently put, as one between the “managerial” capitalism of Europe and the “proprietary” capitalism of the United States. Mary Harney may very well have been correct when she famously argued we are closer to Boston than Berlin – it certainly seems the direction of our privatising, de-regulating economy. The Lisbon Treaty, for all its manifest flaws, at least may steer us closer to the more disciplined and consultative European business model which has more successfully resisted the economic downturn of the past 18 months.
Fianna Fáil cannot make the argument that the economic model they are increasingly in thrall to comes a distant second to that in Europe, but Fine Gael can. Likewise, those on the Joe Higgins-left cannot conceive that there are differing, more ethical and responsible capitalisms that that which we now enjoy/endure. While we might argue that the EU should not be as capitalist, a more socialist option is not on the table in the coming referendum. In Ireland at least, if we simplify the argument (and who in this country doesn’t like to do that?), we have a choice between an ethical model of business-employee relations and an increasingly more neo-liberal model.
Very useful in coming to these conclusions have been for Observer editor Will Hutton’s The World We’re In (making the argument that the UK should resist the US capitalist model) and Capitalism versus Capitalism by Michel Albert,Francois Mitterand’s former economic development czar. After this high-brow reading, I am off to bury my head in Asterix comics. Asterix, of course, was very opposed to European integration …..