‘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.