Business is right to speak up for Britain in the EU – but it can’t do this job alone. For businesses as for civil society, Europe is not a far off-dream or a political debating point but an everyday reality.
Businesses know that success depends on their ability to access markets in Europe, and to secure the capital and labour they need to invest and remain competitive. Without free movement in Europe, businesses would be severely handicapped.
Firstly, they would not be able to recruit and retain the skilled workforce they need so easily. Working people are just that – people who work. They have families and friends who also like to move freely in Europe. The 2.3 m EU citizens building their futures here in the UK do not want to find themselves with the degraded status of “guest workers” the day after the UK pulls out of Europe.
There is a second reason why business needs to be concerned. Free movement is a condition for remaining part of the single market not just the EU. Four freedoms underpin the single market – freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people. As Angela Merkel and others have made clear – you cannot enjoy one without the others.
In our letter to the Observer in June, signed by academics, business and trade union leaders and civil society activists, New Europeans said:
“Free movement is a right exercised by millions and has made a major contribution to the prosperity of Europe over the past 30 years. It is the key to Britain’s continued economic recovery”.
This was echoed by John Cridland in the Daily Telegraph on 25 October 27, 2014:
“Without free movement of workers, the recovery would grind to a halt.”
He might have added, that without access to the single market, Britain might suffer an even greater economic depression than that caused by the financial crash of 2008.
John Cridland comes from Boston in Lincolnshire, and it is there that we need to start turning the tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Boston has a high level of immigration, and is number one on the UKIP hit list for the general election.
New Europeans will be starting our nationwide Community Voices tour in Boston. These meetings will give people the opportunity to say what they feel. It is a mistake to be dismissive of the way people feel about immigration and Europe. However we need to confront this with the reality of how painful and costly an exit from the EU would be for many working people.
At a recent community meeting in Yeovil, run by the local trade union council, Rafal Skarbek from MECA (Mid-West European Communities Association), the guest speaker, arrived to speak with the EU flag in hand, but was asked to take it down. From the floor, supporters of ours challenged this intervention: “What we need to understand is that to Rafal and many EU citizens, the flag means opportunity, freedom and hope for the future.”
The day before, at the Erasmus Student Network in Southampton, we asked how many of the students expected they would live and work in another EU member state? An overwhelming majority raised their hands.
People need to start asking the question “What is the purpose of the European Union?” Yet if you speak to people who are in the middle ground of the debate today, many will say “I don’t really know anything about the EU – why should it matter to me? What’s it all about?”
Business has a central role to play in speaking up for Britain’s membership of the EU. Business also needs to play a role by supporting civic society initiatives that can win support at a popular level for Britain’s continued membership of the EU.
When the people come to decide, it is businesses, just as much as EU citizens and UK expats, who stand to lose out most if we have failed to prepare the ground thoroughly and well for a yes vote in the referendum.