[I wrote this piece, unsolicited, for Comment is Free of The Guardian today. They did not want it, so I publish it here instead]
Last week on these pages the CBI’s John Cridland set out why leaving the EU would be bad for British business. Business grandees such as Richard Branson and Martin Sorrell follow that up with a letter in today’s Independent.
Fair enough you might say. The EU is vital to jobs and growth, so it is good that business leaders are making the case.
This is all very well, but it is not enough. The pro-EU case in the UK tends to feel like some kind of immense bean-counting exercise, where all of the pros of trade and the cons of regulation are weighed up, and the outcome is supposed to be positive. Listen to any mainstream pro-EU politician, from Douglas Alexander to Nick Clegg to David Cameron, and the refrain is always the same – that to be in the EU is vital for British business. And that’s about it.
But what about those of us who do not own or run businesses? What about the rights of workers, or the concerns of people who want to protect our wildlife or our environment? Put it another way, where in the everyday political debate about the EU in the UK are the TUC, the Royal College of Nursing, or the RSPB or Greenpeace?
Frances O’Grady has spoken out about how Tory calls for repatriation are an assault on workers’ rights but the mainstream political left in the UK is too scared to take up the argument. Even the implementation of the Working Time Directive with its loopholes for the UK has helped nurses and junior doctors in the UK. Meanwhile EU membership has forced Britain to clean up its environment while UKIP calls for the repeal of the Bathing Water Directive that protects swimmers around British coasts. Bees will be better off as the EU temporarily bans neonicotinoids, while the horsemeat scandal showed the importance of the traceability of foodstuffs. EU law helps those travelling get emergency medical care, helps keep roaming charges down on their mobile phones, and Ryanair and Easyjet would not even exist were it not for the EU liberalising the airline market.
I hope by now that the picture is starting to become clear. All of these examples are not just purely pros for British business, and they call into question the notion – still maintained in the UK – that the EU could somehow just be something about markets and trade.
The case for the EU in the UK needs to be made in many ways. It must not be just a case for British business in the EU, but a workers’ case for the EU, an environmental case for the EU, a liberal case for the EU or a social democratic case for the EU. It is about each and every one of us as people, with our own needs and our own values, and not all just supporting the EU because it is purported to be positive for our British business overlords.
This means too that the way we talk about the European Union needs to change. It is not, as David Cameron seems to imply, something that is done to the UK. The UK is part of the European Union and can seek to change its direction from within. To criticise the liberalisation of airline markets or, conversely, the Working Time Directive, must become part of political debate, but it must be possible to critique the policy without attacking the EU per se.