UK/EU at 40 – 40 years after joining and the great Europe debate rages on

UK/EU at 40 – 40 years after joining and the great Europe debate rages on

UK/EU at 40 – 40 years after joining and the great Europe debate rages on

In the last of a series of exclusive articles for Endeavour Public Affairs to mark the 40th anniversary of the UK becoming a member of the European Union, Matthew Elliott argues that if the EU is to survive and indeed thrive with Britain inside, it will need to show that it is willing to relax its adherence to ideological dogma and live in the real world where flexibility is key to boosting competitiveness.

Matthew Elliott is Chief Executive of Business for Britain an independent, non-partisan campaign run by business for business. Business for Britain is backed by 750 business leaders including John Caudwell (Phones4u), Ian Cheshire (B&Q), John Clement (Littlewoods), Sir Rocco Forte (Rocco Forte Hotels), Peter Goldstein (Superdrug), Robert Hiscox (Hiscox) , Luke Johnson (Patrisserie Valerie), Lord Kalms (Dixons plc), Paul Killik (Killik & Co), Tim Martin (JD Wetherspoon), Alistair McGeorge (New Look),  Jon Moulton (Better Capital), Charlie Mullins (Pimlico Plumbers), Sir Stuart Rose (Ocado), Peter Simon (Monsoon Accessorize), Joseph Wan (Harvey Nichols), Lord Wolfson (Next plc), and David Webster (InterContinental Hotels).

To follow Matthew Elliott on Twitter – @matthew_elliott

40 years after joining the EEC and the great Europe debate in Britain rages on, buoyed by a renewed sense of political urgency both at home and on the continent.  Many of the arguments on both sides remain the same, steeped in notions of sovereignty and influence, united all too often by a preference for the politics of the discussion before all else.  This is to some degree understandable, not least because the prioritisation of politics ahead of economics is very much the preserve of the EU itself, and like often gives rise to like.  But as we near the impending juncture at which Europe will decide the next big steps on its road to ‘ever closer union’, the choice Britain will need to make about its own EU relationship must be governed as much by political persuasions as by those grounded in anecdotal economic evidence.  This is where business is best placed to weigh in on the debate, but up to this point the interests and concerns of the business community have been woefully under-represented.

For many years, the involvement of business in discussions on our EU membership have been either very limited or had its terms of reference set by ideologically-motivated groups with vested interests claiming to speak on behalf of the broader sector.  Huge multinational firms have been corralled into backing an “In-at-all-costs” line, while truly British businesses are left crying out for their voices to be heard.

To that end, Business for Britain has been launched to give a platform to the thousands of companies who feel a more widely reflective view is missing on what they think is wrong with our EU relationship and what needs to change to get business competitive again.

It is a campaign for business, run by business, rather than being a think tank or trade group attempting to set the agenda.  As such, we are interested in conveying what the many British business leaders we have signed up want to renegotiate to get our relationship right rather than making arguments for In or Out.  It is about getting a better deal, not nailing colours to a political mast.

But what does a better deal mean?  The beauty – some would say the curse – of setting this as a goal for any renegotiation is that many different businesses want many different things when it comes to the minutiae of specifics.  What they can unite behind is fundamental concepts that show the direction of travel is changing for the better.  Business thrives in a competitive climate, and as it stands the EU – in particular its relationship with the UK and the Member States – is failing to provide solutions to boost competitiveness because of its trigger-happy finger on the regulation switch.

An inexorable focus on harmonisation means that Brussels spends a disproportionate amount of its time and energy on making policy ideological.  Practical flexibility gets lost in the mire of pan-European fixations, as the “integrity of the Single Market” mantra time and again gets top priority billing.  Any talk of allowing more exemptions for SMEs from the volume of EU regulation consistently passing through Whitehall is dismissed because of the risk it poses to the Single Market’s integrity.  Legislation identified by business as disproportionately burdensome is met with suggestions of further ‘simplifying’ directives, with nary a mention of withdrawing it altogether.  Brussels should perhaps draw some inspiration from our own Government’s “one-in, two out” regulation rule on this front.  A better deal for Britain means forcing the EU to think outside its ‘more Europe is the answer’ box.

The argument deployed by some that deepening and further integrating the Single Market should be integral to any renegotiating strategy is by no means sufficient on its own to secure the kind of far-reaching change business wants to see.  If the EU is to survive and indeed thrive with Britain inside, it will need to show that it is willing to relax its adherence to ideological dogma and live in the real world where flexibility is key to boosting competitiveness.  Understanding of the fact that one-size-fits-all ever closer union is not the main focus of our EU membership should be reflected in the Treaties.  A protectionism-fuelled trade war with China that will leave British industry decimated underscores why national governments and national parliaments need to have a far greater check on the EU’s monolithic executive.  The EU trumpets its commitment to consensus, but if driving agreement through comes at the expense of jobs and investment/growth it is time to force a rethink of how Brussels does business and how we do business with Brussels.

Published: Tuesday 31 December 2013

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone


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