What I would have written for CiF… Being pro-EU in the UK must not just be a proxy for British business in the EU

[I wrote this piece, unsolicited, for Comment is Free of The Guardian today. They did not want it, so I publish it here instead]

Screen Shot 2013-05-20 at 15.23.00Last 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.

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19 comments

  1. Paul

    Tend to agree with Ian Young about the case anti Europe. Its more hopes and aspirations than anything grounded in realpolitik. Given it based on fantasy rather than real world politics, there are likely to be significant “costs” associated with. I suspect on leaving those costs come in two forms (depending on how we leave): –
    – Loss of political influence (in the scenario where we keep much of the EU regulations to keep the trade)
    – Loss of trade and competitive deregulation (in the scenario where we decide the throw out the EU rule book)

    Assuming we opt for the for latter (which seems to be what most “libertarian” anti EU types are edging for) then being outside the EU would have real costs in terms of trade for business. The anti-EU brigade are right however when they say these could be offset to some extent though lower regulations for businesses (effectively substituting loss of markets for costs savings).

    That said I don’t for one second believe that regulations could get low enough to completely offset the loss of trade nor do I believe that there is the political will in this country to tolerate a such deregulation (Chinese worker’s rights anybody!). Equally the fact that many/most business wants the EU speak volumes about the benefits of the trade versus costs of the regulations.

  2. Ian Young

    Most people on both sides in the UK try to cloak their gut beliefs in economic empiricism. The narrative put forward by the likes of UKIP and the Tory Swivalent Tendency, that we could magically swamp global markets by leaving the EU, is back of a fag packet wish fulfilment.
    What it represents is a longing for ideas that were becoming laughable at the beginning of the 20th century; imperial/commonwealth federation and mythical Anglo-Saxon hegemony with the US. This is a world of economic liberal freedom unchained by dangerous about welfare, social solidarity and where an Englishman can feel a sense of entitlement once again over colonials who are allegedly grateful for England’s enlightenment (unlike those untrustworthy continentals).
    A bit of comic effect in that narrative you may think, well just read the Telegraph blogs from the ludicrous Daniel Hannan MEP to see there is not that much.

  3. Martin Holterman

    Dear Mr. Thorpe,

    I’m sorry you misunderstood. I said nothing about the effect of EU legislation on the quality of drinking water in Spain or France, although I’ve lived in Italy and found the drinking water perfectly drinkable. All I said was that the quality of UK drinking water has markedly improved as a result of EU legislation, which has forced UK water companies to invest heavily in the quality of their (underground) infrastructure. Of course, one can wonder whether UK water customers are currently getting better value for money than 25 years ago, but that was not the question raised by Mr. Worth or the question I sought to answer in my previous comment.

  4. eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    O que se esta a passar é que meia duzia de abelhas são membros do partido do poder do Reino Unido e agora andam com truques o mercado empresarial precisa de novas regas e travarem essas burocracias que ainda existem dentro do Mercado Unico

  5. Joe Thorpe

    I have stayed in Paris guest houses Told not to drink the tap water, I have stayed in the Campanile hotel Metz again Don’t drink the tap water & I ski in Courchevel & stay in a Private Chalet & again don’t drink the tap water although we buy wine in 5 gallon drums & drink that there instead 🙂

  6. Oliver H

    Oh dear, Joe Thorpe.

    My parents happen to LIVE in France. And not in a big city. You can very much use the tap water there.

    Better luck next time.

  7. Joe Thorpe

    Dear Mr Holterman,

    Have you ever been to Spain? Italy? France? You cant drink the water you have to trudge off to the & fetch it like they do in Sub Saharan Africa yet the EU says they have excellent drinking water it does but it has to be fetched & consumed from a bottle. I have my own well in Spain so I am lucky I don’t have to fetch it. You don’t have to wander too far in spain & the Balearic Islands to find some unpleasant items going straight into the sea. The UK reports on everything the jobsworths in Brussels dictate them to. Over here in Spain they ignore them they are filed in the shredder. I was in town yesterday & the restaurant I was at laughed at the Olive Oil diktat they wont be applying it either. In the UK i’d imagine it would just be removed altogether & replaced with some fattening option like Mayo

  8. Martin Holterman

    Those bees may not be the best example – some iffy science going on there – but I can certainly vouch from my own professional experience that the EU has had a strong postive effect on UK drinking water and environmental standards.

  9. Joe Thorpe

    I meant contributions to the EU budget should be based on net trade within the EU not the Eurozone. We are supposed to pay for how we benefit from access to the single market, I don’t think anyone would complain about that. Personally I would get rid of the EU budget contributions & introduce an EU VAT rate based on inter state sales which would be collected for the EU coffers

  10. Joe Thorpe

    The only thing Barroso is any good at is spending other peoples money. There is only one country in Europe doing the hard work on the matter of defence while all the others on the continent sit with their fingers crossed. Without France Europe would be wide open yet no one contributes a red cent to help them maintain their capability but they still subsidise farmers the length & breadth of the continent & I know you will say we get farming subsidies too well no one is going to say no but they shouldn’t be on offer in the first place & why is Europe wasting billions of our money on grandiose Space projects? It will take a thousand years before we have any technology that will allow us to travel beyond our own solar system let alone a galaxy with life.

  11. Oliver H

    “Communism is the redistribution of wealth from those that make it to those that take it.”

    And that’s a solid failing grade.

    “Contributions to the EU budget should be based on Net trade within the Eurozone.”

    Except that the EU is larger than the Eurozone.

    “Barroso is a Maoist for gods sake how much more commie can you get”

    False. he’s center-right.. He WAS a Maoist. You want to talk about freedom, but do not even grant others the freedom to change their mind? Sounds to me like you are as much about freedom as, since you like that example so much, Kim Jong-un

  12. Joe Thorpe

    Communism is the redistribution of wealth from those that make it to those that take it. The EU is full of junkies living off subsidies from those that create the wealth. How would Poland be doing if it was donating £9 Billion to the EU rather than taking it? Some of the countries in the EU have been on the subsidy drip for decades. Contributions to the EU budget should be based on Net trade within the Eurozone. Barroso is a Maoist for gods sake how much more commie can you get & Shultz would sit comfortably at any politburo table. Regulation for the sake of giving EU jobsworths some function leads to unemployment. All I need to say on the subject of regulation is Olive Oil.

  13. Oliver H

    @Joe Thorpe

    You merely demonstrate that you neither know what communism means (hint: it has nothing to do with regulation) or freedom, for that matter (Hint: It means that people are free to decide they want more regulation than you do).

    By your measure, the United States is a rather communist country…

  14. Jon

    Oh get real! Any market needs rules to ensure it works… You just want any firm to pump out any pollution? To exploit its workers as much as possible?

  15. Joe Thorpe

    Everything was regulated in the USSR as it is in North Korea which is good enough reason for me to back the free market option. I am happy for Europe to go down the communist route though, it won’t affect me once we’re free 🙂

  16. Jon

    @Joe – this is absolute rubbish. When UK governments (or indeed any other governments from other Member States) have a clear and determined agenda, change in the EU is possible. The problem is that the UK has never actually known what it wants to work for, and hence does not ever achieve very much. And while I might want the UK to be in Schengen, I nevertheless accept this is not viable currently, and hence it is not mentioned in the piece above, and hence I don’t know why you mention it. Forcing the UK into Schengen is not likely.

    @handandmouse – unregulated markets end up with ordinary people being fleeced. I’m a lefty, and I believe in setting good standards for workers and consumers, and to protect the environment. Regulation is actually good.

  17. handandmouse

    Is every pro-EU argument other than that of the business leaders centred on more bureaucracy, more red tape, ever more and more state intervention and interference? Seems like it from this post. No wonder UKIP are booming.

  18. Joe Thorpe

    Except we can’t change the EU from within. The majority of the EU is made up of subsidy junkies & as we know Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Poland is the current pin up boy of the EU but what country wouldn’t have a booming economy with the subsidies they are sucking in from the Net donor countries? If they were paying in €9 billion a year net instead of leeching out €11 billion would their economy be booming or in recession? The majority of people in the UK couldn’t care less about border controls in the EU, we expect to be asked for our passports & the choice of relocation destination for most British expats starting out in life is not continental Europe, it is Canada, The USA, Australia or New Zealand. How many TV programs like “Wanted Downunder” do we see in relation to Europe? Most programs about Europe are about Holiday homes in the Sun & we have had one of those since the late 60’s which is long before we joined the EU.

  19. Oliver H

    True words. Though the problem is, of course, that with Cameron’s style of “diplomacy”, “changing its directions from within” becomes an unrealistic goal. You’d think working in a coalition government would teach him the value of compromise, but apparently, it doesn’t.