Better Out Than In? I Don’t Think So.
12th September 2017
I have never made a secret of my strongly held view that the UK will be much weaker outside the European Union. That view is held because of a 30+ year working life in international trade, and running Exportaid since 2002. Genuinely, I have not met anyone within the international trade profession who thinks leaving the European Union is a good idea and that should, but does not seem to, worry politicians and the general public alike.
Last night the House of Commons voted in favour of the European Withdrawal Bill, hailed by the Prime Minister as a “historic decision to back the will of the British people”. However, the referendum that took place on 23rd June 2016 established only that the UK would leave the European Union. It was not a vote to leave the European Customs Union, nor was it a vote to leave the European Atomic Energy Agency, Euratom. Had the facts been properly raised at that time we might not be facing the economic abyss that I believe will befall us in the next decade. It would be nice to know how the government actually defines “will of the British people”, when the pretext on which the referendum was staged in the first place was erroneous. The result was a close one, yet the 48% are being serially disregarded.
In defending the position of the UK within the European Union – you know, the concept that it is not possible to change a club by walking away from it – I have been bombarded with statistics largely drawn selectively from our media that actually the British economy is doing fine, that manufacturing is enjoying a purple patch, that exports are benefiting from the weakness of Sterling, and that there are massive opportunities for UK businesses to get out into the world outside the European Union to build a thriving export business.
This positive gloss does not convince many of us whose lives have been spent travelling the world selling British products to businesses in other countries. There are high profile British businesses that can point to considerable successes outside Europe. For example, JCB runs seven companies that all do well in the wider world, because their business has not traditionally been dependent on business in Europe. The future for others is less sustainable, and the populist idea peddled by Nigel Farage and his buddies that we will be able to replace our business with Europe with business with the Commonwealth is at best laughable.
There are 52 Commonwealth countries. 12 are micro states. Others are island nations with small populations and limited capacity for trade. Many are nations where building long term, profitable business will be a challenge and will require the kind of resource and energy that many UK SMEs simply do not have. While Churchill’s CANZUK dream is not entirely dead in the water, those countries we left behind on joining the European Union have long since found other markets in the meantime. Understandably, their priorities have changed and the UK’s influence is no longer what it was. We need to stop pretending. These are of course great places to do business, but in spite of the politically positive noises you may have heard, they intend to strike a very hard bargain.
I do wonder where this is taking us all. Am I deluded? Does the long experience that me and my colleagues, clients and their customers, both in the UK and internationally carry so little importance? Is there another way that we have been blind to? Or are we all prepared to sit back and let people with little or no experience of international business drive a coach and horses through legislation on human rights, the environment, employment, immigration, Customs & Excise, import and export controls etc. Sadly I think we are. Many of us were around long before the UK joined the European Union in 1993 and can remember what it was like on the outside. Some of us can even remember the vote to join the Common Market. I am normally one of life’s optimists, but on this major issue I can only see big problems for the future of our country. Statistics can, and have been, used to paint a picture that simply isn’t there and it feels like we are about to step into a void.