Matthew Elliott is Chief Executive of Business for Britain.
This week Ed Miliband emerged to dispel the confusion surrounding his policy on Europe and succeeding only in creating a further layer of incomprehension.
In many ways this isn’t surprising. It might be sparingly mentioned, but the Labour Party has a long history of internal disagreement over the EU and Miliband’s compromise on Wednesday bears the hallmarks of this conflict. It seems strangely appropriate that the Labour leader should choose this week to make his intervention, a week in which two of the most impressive and vocal left-wing eurosceptics, Bob Crow and Tony Benn, passed away – men who were unashamedly staunch in the face of vested interests and opaque political structures (a commendation Ed is desperate to achieve).
It should be noted that, from the outset, Labour pitched their new referendum ‘lock’ as being in the interests of business. The early reports came with warm words from Sir Martin Sorrell, head of advertising giant WPP and veteran of the pro-Euro campaign, saying he thought Miliband’s policy was “beneficial because it removes one of the ‘grey swans’ that we are worried about.”
I have written elsewhere about the fact that various polls of UK business people show that they would welcome an in/out referendum, and that for the majority of business leaders the greatest uncertainty comes from not knowing how or what Brussels will next choose to regulate; but it is important that anyone who believes a thorough renegotiation and referendum is the right decision doesn’t allow the “business uncertainty” myth to perpetuate.
I want to avoid falling into the, completely correct, trap that Lord Ashcroft pointed out on these pages yesterday – namely that talking about the EU too much is a turn off to most voters – but euromyths tend to take root quickly and are difficult to shift. The 3 million jobs figure, disowned by its originator and proven to be at best a flawed measure, was trotted out again in Miliband’s speech; as was the idea that Brussels has been responsible for peace on the continent since 1945, which a group of eminent British historians dispelled earlier this year.
Business wants a better deal and wants to see a referendum commitment that makes that deal more likely. Business for Britain has over 800 UK business leaders signed up in support of this approach, and not just SMEs; on Wednesday we circulated a comment from Michael Spencer – BfB signatory and boss of ICAP (a FTSE-250 company), who said that “reform of the EU is desperately needed if we are to reverse Europe’s slow decline in the global economy, and the best chance of achieving the changes UK business needs is by renegotiating the terms of our EU membership and then putting the new terms to the British people in a referendum.”
Alongside Business for Britain, the British Chambers of Commerce have been vocal supporters of the Prime Minister’s EU strategy, as have the superb Institute of Directors; Director General Simon Walker saying this week “the EU has to change, and it makes sense to put such changes to the British people.” Contrast this with comments from manufacturers’ body EEF, who described Cameron’s plan as an “unnecessary distraction”, and the CBI who were evasive on the idea of holding a referendum.
The vast majority of Britain’s business people are united on the need for reform of the EU, but we must be clear that only an authentic promise of having a referendum will deliver the real changes that will benefit British businesses.