As the rotating Presidency of the European Union fell to Denmark earlier this month, Danish ministers have been speaking to MEPs in their various Committees to set out their agenda for the next six months.
Today, I was pleased to be able to ask the acting Danish Health Minister, Pia Olsen Dyhr, questions on a range of topics – including the Commission’s Health for Growth programme, diabetes, and tobacco products. The Danish team has put health issues right at the top of their list of priorities, and I am looking forward to being able to work with them.
I was also delighted that Denmark’s Social-Democratic Government has picked out the Posted Workers Directive as one of their priorities on the employment agenda. As the Danish Employment minister, Mette Frederiksen, told MEPs today, free movement of people throughout the European Union is an asset – not only a stimulus to the economy, but also an important right that we enjoy as individuals.
But at the same time, she went on, free movement is worthless if it is not combined with decent working conditions. If free movement is allowed to become a source of insecurity and put established terms and conditions at risk, it will hardly be surprising if people become hostile to it.
‘Posted’ workers are workers who are posted temporarily from one EU Member State to work in another. When first passed in 1999, the Posted Workers Directive was meant to ensure that they were covered by the same minimum legal standards as local permanent workers, on minimum pay, rest periods, safety and other conditions. Not only did that protect the posted worker, but it also prevented local workers from unfair competition, which could undermine their pay and conditions.
But since 1999, a series of judgements from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have undermined the Directive, putting the freedom of the Single Market above the interests of working people. In one infamous case, in which a Latvian company used Latvian workers to build a school in Sweden, the Court ruled that the posted workers did not need to take part in local collective bargaining agreements. That undermined the rights of Swedish workers, and they were understandably angry.
The strikes at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in 2009 also highlighted how strongly people in the UK feel about the movement of workers and how this affects their working conditions – and how wrong the current legislation is getting it.
The Danish Presidency is right to say that when the revision of the Directive is published, not all expectations can be met, and we will need to find a common ground. But what we must all agree on is that the Single Market is not an end in itself, but it exists to improve the lives of people in Europe. Without this principle, it is worthless.