Social Europe Journal 23 Oct 2013
Business Should Talk To Europe To Cut Red Tape
23/10/2013 BY DENIS MCSHANE 1 COMMENT
It’s the time of the year when business leaders proclaim yet another ‘Cut Euro Red Tape’ campaign. Different spokesmen for business queue up to say they want to see less regulation from Europe that they claim is holding back British business.
These are serious men who make serious money. Their view should not be dismissed. As North America and Asia grow strongly Europe does need to ask if every aspect of the way it regulates its economy adds or lessens growth. Europe does have a great number of regulations as do national administrations, professional bodies, regional employer federations and regulatory agencies. But as the more important business leaders troop into Downing Street to tell cabinet ministers what needs to be done they may be making the category error mistake of missionaries throughout the ages – that of preaching to the converted.
Like churches and third world NGOs arguing over the years that the Common Agricultural Policy did damage to third world farmers the UK’s preferred missionary position on EU reform almost always fails to provide satisfaction. The real targets for the CBI, EEF, Marc Bolland of Marks and Spencer, or Simon Walker of the Institute of Directors and other business bosses should be their fellow business leaders in Europe. Telling Iain Duncan Smith or Chris Grayling or Teresa May or the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail there is something wrong with Europe is preaching to the converted.
Oxfam, Cafod, Save the Children and other excellent campaigners against poverty in developing countries also wasted years of lobbying time telling each other how iniquitous EU trade policies were. They should have caught a flight to Dublin or the Eurostar to Paris to convert the churches and pro-poor lobbies in Ireland or France to call for an end to the CAP. That would have been real missionary work. Similarly, British business needs to find support in German or Dutch or Belgian employers circles for their views. Picking up a megaphone in London and hoping you will be heard in Brussels is a low-return option.
Business leaders also need to ask themselves some tough questions. The most obvious one is to ask why, if EU rules, are so destructive of business do so many competitor firms on the continent thrive on them? If it is EU regulations holding back Britain from competing in the world why are German, or Dutch or Swedish firms operating under the same rules able to export so much more than the UK does?
A big problem is goldplating – Whitehall seat polishers adding on their own interpretations to a general EU regulation so as to cover their own backside to any future legal challenge. But that is a made-in-London problem not one to blame on Brussels. One demand is that the EU should not interfere in shale gas exploitation. So far there is no evidence of this. It is Nimbys in Sussex who are seeing off shale gas drilling in Britain just as Nimbys everywhere stop serious housing construction. In France, to placate les verts, President Hollande has announced a complete moratorium on shale gas exploration until after the 2017 presidential election. In Germany, Angela Merkel has renounced nuclear power so the chances of her supporting fracking are zero. If UK business really, really wants shale gas to arrive there is serious UK and EU persuasion to be undertaken. Blaming Brussels is a poor substitute.
One of the biggest sources of anti-EU feeling in Britain is the sense that European rules permit any number of European workers to come and “take” British jobs from British citizens. Without entering into lump of labour fallacies it is true that employment agencies offering blocks of labour without any of the obligations that come with full-time employment and lack of training dampen the possibilities of indigenous workers getting well-paid employment. So to remove core labour rights may make sense to the bottom line but also sends millions of voters into the arms of UKIP as they blame the EU not for too much social rights protection but too little.
Since Margaret Thatcher signed the Single Act in 1985 there have indeed been thousands of rules aimed at regulating and harmonising the single market. Many of them have been demanded by British business leaders and put in place by pro-business EU Commissioners like Lords Cockfield, Brittan and Mandelson.
The best advocate for the business case for EU reform would be if French, German, Dutch and other business leaders adopted similar positions. But that means engaging with Europe not sniping from the sidelines or even from within the cabinet room in Downing Street. Time for the CBI, EEF and IOD to speak European?