A Brexit could mean more regulation for small businesses, not less

Questions raised at a recent New Statesman roundtable challenge the ‘better off out’ argument.

‘Britain is shackled to the corpse of Europe’, wrote the MEP and polemicist Daniel Hannan last November. Often central to this argument is the notion that Brussels red tape is strangling the potential of small businesses, which could be a fundamental driver of our economic growth. If we left, we could dictate the terms of our trade with Europe. Recent tumult amongst the Conservative ranks would suggest that Hannan is not unique in this view. However, the idea is rooted in a fundamental misconception about our relationship with the EU- that exit would lead to less regulation for small businesses.

In a recent roundtable held by the New Statesman discussing the methods by which Britain might increase exports amongst small and medium enterprises (SMEs), Dr. Rebecca Harding, CEO of Delta Economics, suggested that exit from the EU will result in more regulation, not less. This is based on previous research conducted by Delta Economics in collaboration with UKTI, which shows that the amount of distance regulation would in fact increase. Non-UK companies outside of the EU but inside European Free Trade Association (EFTA), most notably Norwegian and Swiss companies, have complained of being treated as being both outside and inside of Europe, thereby increasing the amount of bureaucracy that they are forced to face. Further information about this research and the work of Delta can be found here.

Therefore, even if we accept the premise that our relationship with the EU is primarily about trade rather than the more utopian social democratic vision of Europe as a protector of rights and freedoms, it remains in our economic interest to stay in. This strikes at the heart of the economic pillar of the Eurosceptic ‘better off out’ argument. This also questions the oft-touted premise that Britain should, or even could, aspire to a ‘Norwegian-style’ relationship with the EU.

Instead, evidence suggests that small businesses stand to benefit from further economic integration. At the New Statesman round table, Helen Brand showed that even further removal of barriers to the achievement of the single market could provide invaluable trade opportunities for SME’s- potentially increasing trade by 45%. Findings from the progressive think-tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) further support this- suggesting that further integration of the single market could increase EU consumption by €37 billion, thereby providing ample opportunities for small business growth. Even the prime minister's newly appointed strategist Jo Johnson agrees, arguing in a recent essay that further integration would leave the average EU household £3,570 better off.

The more reasoned political voices on this issue remain oddly silent in the face of popular pressure, despite the fact that it marks a point of accord between the progressive Europhile and pro-trade business lobbies. As IPPR notes, neither the British government nor the EU itself have done enough to convince of its benefits, and myths have abounded. If the argument was centered around our small business economy becoming more competitive and the ceaseless ‘global race’, perhaps our discourse would be more measured.

Research suggests SME's could face more regulation if we left the EU. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.