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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.