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
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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.