Business views on Europe: there’s no accounting for greed
The British Chambers of Commerce have released a report of a survey of some of their members which suggests that most businesses want to stay in the EU, but with certain EU powers ‘repatriated’ to Westminster. So, they echo the Conservative Party’s approach, although with significant levels of outright support for staying in the EU full stop, or leaving regardless of the consequences. However, as always with surveys about Europe, the devil is in the detail, and it’s difficult to disentangle exactly what views the businesses surveyed actually hold.
One thing’s for sure, though. The overall position of businesses reported by the BCC is that they want to have their cake and eat it. They want to keep the access to a single market of 400 million consumers, but they don’t want the fairness for their workforce that the social dimension of the EU requires. More sophisticated business leaders understand that there’s a balance to be struck.
The press release issued by the BCC says that, whilst 60% of companies surveyed feel that a scenario that sees Britain withdraw fully from the European Union would have a negative business and economic impact (18% were in favour), 64% currently believe that a scenario that sees Britain remaining in the EU, but with powers transferred back from Brussels to Westminster, could have a positive impact on Britain’s business and economic prospects. Note “could”.
It’s also worth pointing out that in another question, 47% felt that maintenance of the status quo would have no or a positive impact, against 42% who thought the status quo would have a negative impact. These numbers don’t really seem to add up, unless you factor in that many businesses really just don’t know one way or the other (which is actually a perfectly reasonable position to take about the future impact of a major change in Government policy) but didn’t want to tick that box!
The BCC say that their survey also “reveals” (this is news?) that business’ top priorities “for any re-negotiation of the balance of competences between Brussels and Westminster are 1) employment law (54%), 2) health and safety law (46%), and 3) regional development policies (33%).” This is what is known in the trade as a “do you want a free pony” question, and it’s meaningless without asking follow up questions like “even if that meant losing the market access the EU gives you” or “even if all your competitors’ costs were reduced to the same extent”? But it’s a bit of an own goal by the BCC – as the ‘repatriation’ policy probably is for the Conservatives too, in the long-term – because it “reveals” that this isn’t about nationalism or self-determination at all, it’s about how some people say “repatriate” when they mean “cut” – only it sounds better. Businesses want to opt out of (European) rights for workers that they think cost them money. No sh*t , Sherlock!
Of course, it’s difficult to know what this survey means without a lot more data, and the BCC doesn’t say anything about how the survey was conducted, who by (eg an independent market research bureau which would guarantee representivity, openness with results and so on), what the breakdown of the results was beyond what is contained in the press release and so on (I asked at lunchtime, but have not yet had a response – I may need to update this post if they get back to me.) We can’t tell whether businesses were describing the likely impact on the UK economy as a whole, or their business in particular (this is very important – it’s perfectly possible for leaving the EU to have no impact on an individual company at all but be devastating for the economy, and vice versa.)
And we don’t know whether the businesses concerned felt that repatriating powers was vitally important to the future prospects of their business or the economy, or of only marginal interest. Again, BCC’s view that companies want employment and health and safety legislation repatriated, and BIS’ data which shows these are not at all high on corporate agendas compared with issues like the lending environment or the state of aggregate demand, is not necessarily in conflict.
So, all in all, the BCC’s survey is really not much more than a sound-bite saying that businesses want all of the rights the EU brings them with fewer responsibilities.