With just a few days to go before the European Parliament elections, Britain’s relationship with the European Union is very much in the news. Which is good.
But sadly, the business case for the UK’s place in Europe is not heard as clearly as it should be, since our membership of the European Union is vital for our economy, for growth, and for jobs right around the country.
CBI research shows that our EU membership is worth up to £78bn a year - about £3,000 a year for every British household. And here in the North East, the Centre for Economics and Business Research has estimated that 156,000 jobs are linked to the Single Market, over half of them in manufacturing.
The UK as a whole exported £104bn worth of manufactured goods to the EU in 2012. No wonder the Engineering Employers Federation is so clear in its view: “The fundamental question we ask is whether the EU is still working for Britain, in the interests of our economy? The unequivocal answer from Britain’s manufacturers is yes.”
The carmakers are equally clear - over 90 per cent of them believe that being in the EU is best for their business. Not surprising, since the UK car industry exported 618,000 cars to the EU in 2012. The story of Nissan in the North East, like that of other carmakers elsewhere in the country, is a national success story of which we should be proud.
But it’s not just the big companies that benefit from this strong performance. Companies involved in the supply chain, many of them small businesses, gain too – the car industry supports a UK supply chain worth over £12bn.
Of course, nobody would seriously argue that the EU is perfect. Major reforms are needed to make it more competitive, flexible and outward-looking: completing the Single Market in services, energy, transport and telecoms, and creating a genuine digital Single Market; tackling excessive regulation, particularly for small firms; creating an integrated European venture capital market to support growing businesses; enhancing the role of the City of London as the world’s financial centre in Europe. These are all vital. Focusing on them would be good for Europe and for Britain alike.
We also need to push harder on trade. Completing the trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US could deliver an additional £10bn a year for the UK, and increase our car exports by 7%. Completing a similar deal with Japan could add a further £13bn a year. These are big prizes.
And we need to make the workings of the EU more efficient, transparent and accountable. The institutions must do less, and do it better; and they must leave to national governments those issues that are better dealt with at national level.
This is an ambitious programme. But it is achievable. There is increasing support right across Europe for reforms like these. We need to build closer alliances to deliver change.
Some people argue that it is all too difficult, and that we should leave. But none of the alternatives that the defeatists and anti-Europeans have put forward offer a better or more prosperous deal for the UK.
The UK could certainly survive outside the EU. But in or out, we will still need a close economic relationship with the EU - it takes half of our exports. Countries like Norway, who have a looser relationship with Europe, have no influence over the market into which they seek to sell. They have to follow EU rules without being able to shape them. And per head Norway pays 80% of the amount the UK pays for a far worse deal.
Of course, we need to do more business and sell more goods and services to other countries, too. That is beyond doubt. But the EU, negotiating for a bloc of 500m rather than one country of 63m, can open doors to new markets far more effectively than we could on our own.
So we could leave, and be less prosperous and less influential in the global race. Or we could stay, roll up our sleeves and work for a Europe that will deliver jobs and growth, in our national interest. The voice of business is clear. Let’s hope that the European elections deliver a cohort of MEPs who are up for that challenge too.
Alisdair McIntosh is director of Business for New Europe, an independent group of business leaders making the case for EU reform and continuing UK membership