On Thursday 23rd June 2016 Britain’s electorate will vote in the EU referendum to decide whether or not we should remain in the European Union. The Union has long held a fascination for me, ever since I designed and patented an EU board game at school. At university I spent an exchange year in Amsterdam thanks to the ERASMUS scheme and, currently, Blue Eyed Sun is selling more and more greeting cards in Europe.
A common complaint amongst business owners is that we don’t have enough information about the EU Referendum (aka Brexit) to make an informed decision. If you think about it, we can never have enough information. The data for any given situation is infinite. So, despite our best efforts, we could end up making a snap judgment based on emotions like fear (of the unknown or of missing out) or anger (at the idea of losing control or at being taken advantage of). If it works out alright we will forget the external variables that affected this and pat ourselves on the back even though it has very little to do with our conscious intent or control.
Despite this seemingly frivolous outlook on how we make decisions, I’ve been brushing up on my history and weighing up the pros and cons of Britain’s EU membership to try and rationalise my thoughts. Here’s what I’ve learned:
A Brief History
The European Union is an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries. Created post WWII, the thinking was that countries that foster economic cooperation together are less likely to go to war. After the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the EU created its own currency (The Euro), which is used by 19 members. The EU has a parliament to which member governments assign representatives. It sets rules on things like the environment, transport, consumer rights and human rights. The single market facilitates free movement of goods, services, capital and workers.
Despite Churchill’s supporting of the idea of the EU, Britain initially stood on the sidelines at the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 held back by commitments to the commonwealth and the ‘special relationship’ with the US. Britain was one of few European economies that grew during the war. At the time, GDP per capita in the UK was significantly larger that the average six founding members of the EU; however by 1973 it had plummeted to 10% below average.
After being twice rejected in the sixties (French President, Charles de Gaulle, was unconvinced of Britain’s commitment), Britain joined the EU in 1973 under Ted Heath’s Conservative government, desperate to prevent further relative economic decline. Harold Wilson’s Labour government held a referendum in 1975 when 67% voted to stay in the EU. After joining the EU our GDP per capita has been comparatively stable ever since.
Should we remain, David Cameron has negotiated terms that mean that Britain will not join the Euro, migrant welfare payments will be cut, the City of London will be protected, British cash spent on bailing out Eurozone nations will be reimbursed and a ‘red card’ system will be implemented to prevent the EU imposing unwanted legislation.
Whilst a lot of detail will be affected by the outcome of the referendum, broadly speaking the debate centres around two main areas, our sovereignty and financial implications.
The right to control our own destiny is one of the lynchpins of the leave campaign. In my opinion, this control is somewhat of an illusion, as is the notion of a separate Great Britain. If you think about it, we are already European. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’.
St George, our patron saint, was a Roman soldier born in Cappadocia, Turkey. English is Latin based and we were essentially under the moral authority of the Pope for centuries until the Reformation. Previously, Britain has been controlled by the Saxons (Germany/Denmark/Holland), the Normans (France/Scandinavia), the Vikings (Denmark/Norway/Sweden) and the Romans (Italy). For centuries French was the language of our Royal Court, diplomacy and the law. Several Royals have been German (Namely Hannover and Windsor - previously Saxe-Coburg). Immigration and the flow of people and ideas has always been an integral part of what Britain is.
The flow goes both ways. Over a million Britons live in other EU countries and millions more visit each year. EU citizens can live and work were they like within the EU. Those voting to stay say that there is no guarantee that expats would be able to stay abroad after Brexit. The opposition say that International law protects expats from being forced to return.
The issue of sovereignty is essentially about control. Leavers say that most UK laws are made in Brussels, whilst those that wish to remain say that only a minority of UK law derives directly from the EU; plus Britain retains a veto in many important areas. In any case, some sharing of sovereignty is crucial to enable fair trade across Europe.
Britain is already a member of, and influenced by, a variety of external bodies including the International Monetary Fund, World Health Organisation, United Nations, NATO and G8. The toxic Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), banks and corporations arguably all have more powerful control over our lives than the EU.
About half of the UK’s trade is conducted in the EU. As members, trade negotiations with other parts of the world are conducted by the EU not individual states. Being part of the EU gives the group more negotiating power on a global scale. US President Barack Obama said as much in a recent interview.
Those wanting to leave say that the EU bureaucracy costs Britain too much. For example, last year my friend Gemma Price at Superfood Market had to spend over £40,000 on new labelling to comply with EU changes. At a recent Sage EU Debate I attended, MP Anna Soubry asked the 100 business people there if their business had been affected by EU red tape and not one raised their hand. Certainly we are unaffected by this bureaucracy in the greeting card business.
Those who believe we should leave the EU say that £billions of pounds would become available for other priorities. It is hard to know the true cost of leaving though. Some estimate this could also be in the £billions.
Those wishing to remain feel that we save money being in the EU because prices are lower as a result. Flights and mobile phone charges, for example, are cheaper. They say the benefits easily outweigh the costs and that we might even have to pay to access the EU market if we left.
Leavers say that trade would continue because we import more than we export from Europe. They cite non-member, Norway, as an example of how trade deals would work outside of membership. On the Remain side, it’s felt that leaving would cause an economic shock and slow our growth. We are more dependent on the EU than they are on us and we would still have to comply with EU rules when selling into the single market – my friend Gemma would still need the right labels if she wished to sell into the EU.
The Leavers are concerned that unemployment is over 10% in the EU (almost double that of the UK) and worry that more people will flow into the UK putting financial strain on our healthcare and welfare systems. The UK currently gets £66 million for investment every day from the EU. Three million UK jobs are said to be linked to the EU.
The Card Industry
Blue Eyed Sun trades in Europe with EU members and without. Having less paperwork and less currencies to exchange saves us money. One of our best BES team members is from Spain and we’d hate to lose her. To be honest though, I’m sure we would cope whatever the outcome of the vote. It would be a problem if leaving badly affected our relations with our European neighbours.
The diaspora of Brits abroad probably has a more important effect on the European greeting card market than we can quantify. For example, last year Blue Eyed Sun sold over 50,000 cards in Greece and I believe this is largely due to British influence. With more Brits abroad, more countries are adopting our practices. Would this diminish if we left the EU and had less flow of people between Europe and the UK? Whatever we decide, the EU Referendum is one of the biggest decisions our country has had two make in many years.
Personally, I like being part of the EU. It protects our Human Rights. We have cleaner water and air and lower greenhouse emissions. The EU protects consumers and regulates on trading standards. We currently have a seat at the table with influence instead of being on the outside. I also like that the EU aims to stimulate competition and trade, increase efficiency, raise quality and cut prices. This makes good business sense to me.