Business for Britain’s suggestions remind us of why we are pro-European

Labour Party
This blog post recently appeared on Labour List. Since it’s a very important issue, I am posting it again on this blog

Proposals recently put forward should remind those of us on the left of the need to fight the good fight when it comes to Europe.

A set of suggestions put to the government, previewed in the Daily Telegraph, have been compiled by the right-wing Eurosceptic lobby group Business for Britain. They are part of its effort to have certain UK companies made exempt from EU guidelines. A paper released by the organisation argued that British firms should be allowed to “opt out of some of the more onerous European regulations” in order to enhance “competitiveness”. They say doing so would save the UK £7 billion a year (a figure, incidentally, around a tenth of that which the CBI estimate that we gain each year from being in Europe).

That the man making the Business for Britain case is billionaire and former Tory Treasurer Peter Cruddas gives a sense of exactly where the group is coming from. Cruddas has joined Business for Britain’s eight man board – at present headed up by Matthew Elliott, founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance – with the stated intention of “changing the terms of Britain’s EU membership”. His anti-EU offensive this week has centred on the apparently stifling level of “red tape” Britain is subjected to by Europe.

Presenting Euroscepticism as an attack on bureaucracy is a common – and unfortunately fairly effective – rhetorical device among those on the right. In enables protection for workers to be brushed aside as needless officialdom – vital safeguards on the financial sector to be dismissed as administrative window-dressing. It frames the debate in a way that, at first glance, is compelling to an outsider – no one wants more red tape, after all, do they? – but which in reality seeks to undermine employee rights and let businesses operate unchecked.

The supposed “red tape” currently binding EU firms includes regulations which protect workers from exploitation and discrimination, and measures which mitigate against the risks attached to international finance. There may be occasional news stories about EU guidelines missing their target or being too prescriptive, but in the great majority of cases they act as a brake on businesses looking to take shortcuts or exploit loopholes.

As we move towards the European Elections in May the debate about EU membership is likely to move in one of two directions, either becoming a more and more negative discourse about immigration, or an increasingly technical debate about whether, in financial terms, Britain gains more than it loses through being part of Europe. If we are to set out a more positive argument about the EU we need to avoid colluding in the idea that all Directives from Brussels are bad, and instead remind voters that being part of Europe is a means of protecting our social fabric.

With the likes of Peter Cruddas leading the Eurosceptic charge – and a Tory government at some point in the future unchecked by the EU seeking to further undermine employees – it is vital that the Labour Party does not just pay lip service to the European Elections. We must be sure to see the wood for the trees when it comes to the EU, and to make the case strongly.

Making the business case for Europe – the UK must side with pragmatism over prejudice

Labour Party

Last week’s comments by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn expose the flaws of Euroscepticism. In terms of current government policy it is the tail that wags the dog.

Ghosn suggested Nissan’s Sunderland factory is European first and British second. He said his company would need to reconsider its “strategy and investments for the future” if Britain leaves the EU.

His words hit on an uneasy fault line within the coalition government – between economic rhetoric which promises jobs and industrial investment, and social policy which is nationalist and populist in tone. The former can only be achieved through global engagement; the latter relies on a sentimental vision of ‘Little England’. With Tory backbenchers, led by Adam Afriyie, now pushing for an early EU referendum – a demand which is, by Afriyie’s own admission, driven by the short-term political goal of warding off Ukip – the gap between the two is becoming ever wider.

Last week’s disagreement between the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Eurosceptic campaign group Business for Britain shows how the Europe issue comes down to a straight choice: pragmatism or prejudice.

The CBI, which represents 240,000 UK companies, describes the case for staying in Europe as “overwhelming”. It values the annual benefits of Britain’s EU membership at as much as £78 billion – £3,000 a year for every family. As CBI Director General John Cridland points out, EU membership provides a “springboard” for reaching 500 million Europeans and gives access to trade agreements worth £15 trillion. “We’d struggle to pull off deals of this scale on our own,” he says.

Cridland’s point is very clear: in the face of big global economic changes our best chance of remaining economically relevant is through working with our neighbours.

Business for Britain’s approach, by contrast, illustrates how difficult it is to make economic sense of an argument which is at its core myopic and knee-jerk. The group’s co-chair John Mills drew a blank when asked on the BBC’s Today Programme how redundancies at plants like Nissan tie in with the ‘job creation’ EU withdrawal would supposedly bring. Even Mills’ own organisation’s polling cannot disguise the fact that big businesses – those most likely to generate large-scale employment – say the benefits of being in Europe outweigh the costs. Everything about Business for Britain, from its emotive language to the sepia wistfulness of its website, emphasises nostalgia rather than logic.

The contrast between these two mindsets was summed up nicely by David Marquand last month, when he wrote that “Europhiles speak to the head, Europhobes speak to the heart”. For me these are two approaches which cannot be reconciled; yet by succumbing to backbenchers’ Euroscepticism David Cameron has tried to let them coexist. He has strapped himself to two horses which will never run in the same direction. This is not just the case in terms of business, but also on issues like security, where isolationism threatens the UK’s ability to tackle organised crime.

With senior business figures continuing to speak out in favour of Europe it is important that those on the progressive wing of politics are staunchly and unapologetically pro-European. As the business case for the EU builds the misty-eyed vision of times passed which sustains Euroscepticism (the “never never land” spoken of by John Major) will be exposed.

Regardless of when or if there is a referendum, this is an issue which cannot be thrown into the long grass. Those of us who want a more prosperous Britain must seize the impetus on Europe and ally ourselves with the forces of reason.