By Paul Goodman
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It is nice to be thanked by Matthew Elliott and Alan Halsall for dreaming up the Business for Britain title. But action is better than words – and, in this case, the action has been provided by them (not me) and by, in Matthew's words, the "more than 500 people, from FTSE 100 directors to family-owned businesses that are
the backbone of our economy, to articulate the demand that this government,
or a future one, gets a better deal from the EU: for jobs, for growth, for
Britain". And as Halsall points out this morning on this site, "the British Chambers of Commerce "recently reported that a resounding
majority of companies it surveyed backed renegotiating our current
relationship with the EU to allow for powers to flow back to the UK".
He puts his finger on the EU's compliance costs, red tape and tit-for-protectionism political ideology. It worries business people, he writes, when they see "political ideology being prioritised ahead of economic practicality". This raises a question: is Business for Britain the nucleus of a business campaign for EU withdrawal? It's a statement of the obvious to begin an answer by pointing that none of us can know what state the political geography of Europe will be by 2017. The Euro will probably still exist in some form, but we can't be sure. The EU will doubtless still do so, too – but, again, the future is impossible to read, and the ideological zeal of the Euro project is straining the patience of the northern European taxpayers who are paying for it.
None of us can know how the 500 business people involved in the new campaign will decide to vote if a referendum takes place. (And remember, Ed Miliband is unlikely to hold one if he is Prime Minister after 2015, and the Liberal Democrats are likely to block one if the present Coalition is re-formed after the general election of that year.) My guess is that some of them, if push comes to shove, won't be up for withdrawal. None the less, I think the answer to my question is yes. A section of business would rather stay in a reformed EU than leave, but if forced to choose between an unreformed EU and the open seas, would rather live in a global Britain than an uncompetitive zollverein.
Many voters are unlikely to believe that we could leave the EU without adverse effects on investment and without trade barriers going up. But a crucial proportion of them may be persuaded that any short-term pain will be outweighed by medium-term gain: that world trade rules and everyone's economic interests are against a trade war, and that our prosperity depends on our tax rates, skills base, regulatory environment, business costs, infrastructure and inventiveness, not on being a member of a club run by the geniuses who dreamed up the Euro. We look forward to more micro-campaigns: students for Britain, Geordies for Britain, bikers for Britain, transvestites for Britain and so on. In the meantime – welcome, Business for Britain.