The business argument is with the EU

Even if the politics are a disaster zone.

Ever since the financial crisis, a previously buoyant eurozone has turned into a disaster zone. The single currency has lurched from crisis to catastrophe as the finances of member states have come under pressure. Bailouts that appear to be funded in large part from northern Europe are keeping several countries in southern Europe afloat. The next crisis is potentially lurking at the tail end of summer, with Cyprus due to get its next tranche of cash from the unofficial troika of the EU, ECB and IMF in early September. That is dependent on the country meeting stringent financial and budgetary targets and there is little evidence so far that they will be met.

With a German election by then just around the corner, it is unlikely that German chancellor Angela Merkel will be in the mood for leniency. The upshot could be that Cyprus is allowed to exit the single currency – the last six months having bought enough time to make it potentially a more orderly exit, and the economy is small enough for the ramifications to be less seismic than if a country such as Greece had fallen out.

Regardless of what happens in September (and it is as easy to paint a picture in which Cyprus gets the cash and everything carries on as it is), the eurozone’s troubles at least partly explain why the subject of the EU and the UK’s role within it is so high on the political agenda. As leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron set out his stall clearly. He said he didn’t want the party to keep “banging on about Europe”. But the growth of anti-EU sentiment and the seemingly unstoppable rise of UKIP in particular has meant that, as prime minister, Cameron has had to bang on about it quite a lot.

UK politicians and the media are having to regularly discuss details (and not the possibility) of previously abstract ideas such as a referendum, renegotiation of the country’s relationship with the EU, or even complete withdrawal. The trouble is that all these discussions happen at a volume and intensity that rarely allow for sensible debate. Economic arguments are formed and numbers and statistics thrown around with little heed for anything other than scoring points and winning the argument.

It was somewhat sobering this month then to get a snapshot of what the UK’s exporters (clearly the key to UK economic recovery) think about Europe. The most often repeated story when it comes to discussions about where the UK recovery will come from is that exporters will have to seek out sales in high-growth emerging markets in far-flung corners of the world. So-called BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, China and India) are cited above all as the key for our future success. Well, this didn’t chime with recent research conducted by economia. We asked the leaders of 500 businesses (a mix of those already exporting and those not currently doing so but with plans to do so in the next three to five years) to rate different markets around the world for their importance.

While it was no surprise to see Western Europe rated as important or very important this year by more respondents than any other market (71 per cent compared to the next most popular market, Asia at 55 per cent), what was less expected was the pattern when respondents were asked to rate the importance of markets in three to five years’ time. Here again Western Europe dominated by a similar margin. Even more unlikely was the rise of North America in the future (up by 5 per cent), knocking Asia back into third place.

Part of the explanation for the continued preference for Europe is the geography. Cost of exports was cited as a concern for and a factor in choosing markets by almost all respondents regardless of size or sector. And while the short distances help, some of the ease of doing business in Europe is driven by the standardisation of market rules and regulations and the lack of need to comply with different country guidelines or indeed to pay any import duties.

It appears from this that when asked about Europe on a purely business basis, without any of the political or emotive overlay, there is overwhelming support for the simplification benefits that arise from EU membership. More detailed analysis of the findings of this research needs to be conducted, but initial findings suggest there is also a worrying reluctance on the part of UK exporters to tap into the phenomenal growth of the emerging economies. In the mid-term at least, the ease of doing business in Europe appears to be winning over the potential returns from more long-term investments in places such as China, India, Russia or Brazil.

That would suggest that keeping close to Europe may be economically beneficial regardless of the politics.

This story first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.