The terms of Britain’s membership of the EU are flawed and need to be addressed

Matthew Elliott
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Which EU reform is best for business?

BUSINESS for New Europe’s manifesto – A Europe That Works – is a useful contribution to the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU, a debate that has often been dominated by political, rather than business voices. But the assumption that the UK’s wealth and job creators would seek to preserve Britain’s place in the EU at all costs has already been dispelled with the launch of our own campaign – Business for Britain – supported by over 750 business leaders, and calling for a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership.

And the problem with business manifestos is that, in order to be credible, they must give an idea of how they can be delivered. There’s lots in A Europe that Works on what we need, little on how the government can actually push through these reforms. We are, however, given several warnings against opt-outs and lots of encouragement to “get stuck in”.

Successive governments have tried to get “stuck in”. But for decades, the quest to roll back EU regulation has failed and business has suffered. Harold Wilson demanded reform and only got a handful of trade concessions. Tony Blair famously gave up a significant portion of the UK’s precious EU budget rebate in the hope of changing the Common Agricultural Policy, only for nothing to happen. Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty to try and expand British influence, only to see a large section of power transferred to Brussels.

This manifesto calls for powers to “be left with national governments unless there is a strong case for supranational decision making”. But who would decide what is a “strong case”? If there isn’t a strong case for the EU to have these powers, would Business for New Europe recommend returning powers to the UK, as we do?

It suggests that the European Parliament should have a single seat, abolishing the Strasbourg Parliament. But a change like this would require treaties to be rewritten; something that Business for New Europe later says is “unlikely” to happen.

The manifesto correctly points out the need to reduce the “regulatory burden”, but goes on to call for an expansion of the single market, with all the regulation and harmonisation that would entail. It also suggests a European framework for e-administration (an online invoicing portal), requiring even more regulation. Calling for more bureaucracy, when all the evidence says that British business can no longer cope with Brussels red tape as it stands, is strange at best.

We will be bringing out our own document on business priorities before the end of the year and, while it’s too early to draw conclusions from our own consultation, it’s already clear that industry leaders are crying out for fundamental change. A full 42 per cent of business people polled by Business for Britain said they’d leave the EU, compared to 33 per cent who said would vote to stay in. When we asked them how they’d vote following the “significant return of powers”, those wanting out dropped to 27 per cent and those wanting in rose to 43 per cent.

For 40 years, politicians have claimed that that they can reform the EU, and all we have to show for it is reams of European regulation and less political control. It’s time to tackle the heart of the problem. The terms of Britain’s membership are flawed and need to be addressed. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Germany supports treaty change, the time has come for Britain’s politicians to act. We are confident British business will roll-in behind them if they do.

Matthew Elliott is chief executive of Business for Britain.