The Prime Minister’s long awaited speech on Europe delivered an upbeat message about Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, writes Margot James MP.
It is true that the EU is changing in response to the crisis in the Eurozone and that this is the right time therefore to seek changes that further the cause of greater competitiveness, accountability and flexibility.
Such changes would benefit the EU as a whole and not just Britain; and it is in that spirit that we should proceed.
If a new settlement embodying these principles can be agreed the Prime Minister will campaign for a yes vote in a referendum on whether Britain should remain at the heart of the EU.
Towards the end of his speech the PM said that it is imperative that we continue to have access to the single market, as that is vital for British jobs. To which I would add that it is imperative that we continue to have influence over the rules and development of the single market as well as access to it. This position will only be guaranteed by us continuing to be full members of the EU.
Why is this so important? The EU has a combined GDP of £11 trillion, making it twice the size of China and slightly larger than the US. We still export between 45% and 50% of our goods and services to EU countries. Some industries like food and drink, which is Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector, are especially depending on EU markets.
As Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Lord Green, Minister for Trade and Investment, and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Trade and Investment, I know how important it is that British firms forge ahead in the growth markets of the world. There has been little if any growth in Europe for some time now; and until, as a continent, we become more competitive that is likely to remain the case.
However, having been in business myself I know how difficult it is to break in to new markets. If 45% of your business is in one region you do not jeopardise that relationship without a very strong imperative. It is salutary to reflect that we export more to Germany (£44 billion) than we do to almost the entire group of Commonwealth countries. We should do a great deal better in those countries than we have, and it is a travesty that we only export goods worth £8 billion to India for example.
But the underlying causes of that poor performance are manifold and go back decades. Complacency, lack of languages, declining manufacturing and a reluctance to invest the necessary time and commitment to relationship building that is vital to making sales in new markets.
Under this government great strides are being made to turn this situation around. Involving the Foreign Office, UKTI, and business organisations there is more support for companies wishing to export to ‘BRIC’ markets, the ‘Next Eleven’, and other parts of the world which are growing.
But results will not be immediate, and our membership of the EU is important to the protection of business and jobs that depend upon the single market. It is not even just about protection. Last year the European Council identified that completion of the market in services should be worth 330 billion Euros. Britain stands to gain a big share of this growth given our leading position in education, legal, digital, financial and property services.
Investment in to the UK is just as important as exports out of the UK. German companies employ 400,000 people in Britain. Britain is the leading European destination for global investment and the majority of global corporations have their European headquarters in the UK. Britain is a significant power in its own right but there is no doubt that a factor of considerable importance to global investors is the right of entry into the single market of 500 million people that investment in Britain affords.
Finally Britain’s influence in the world is enhanced though our membership of the EU. That is why President Obama has affirmed the importance of our continued membership. My parliamentary work in trade and investment has enabled me to hear the views of ambassadors and business leaders in Japan, South Korea and Singapore just recently. They all understand the frustrations we experience as members of a 27 grouping of nations but they are deeply concerned that we consider leaving the EU as they see their investments in the UK in the way I have described.
So I back the PM in his bid to improve the EU and put a revised proposition to the public in a referendum. To negotiate safeguards for financial services and decision-making around the single market. To unencumbered industry from the excesses of regulation that can and should be conducted at member state level. Negotiations are going on all the time and the PM cited some recent examples of successful outcomes in his speech. I am confident that the Government will achieve a new settlement that will be to the benefit of Europe as a whole; and that people will vote for the UK to remain a leading member of the EU when the time comes for a referendum.