The uncertainty over Britain's EU membership is damaging growth

Conservative MP Robert Buckland says it is time for the UK to engage with the EU constructively.

For some politicos, the debate about the European Union (EU) seems to be a matter of abstract theories and dusty deliberation. For me, as a MP representing an area whose daily business often is within the EU, the reality is somewhat different. I hear from my constituents and local businesses about the problems and opportunities they are facing with their jobs, their household finances, their business prospects and our local economy. Swindon is an outward looking town with a diverse industrial base. For Swindon, read Britain.

We are an attractive country to invest in because we act as an outward-looking springboard into the rest of Europe. In discussions I have held with local businesses, both big and small, it is clear that even if certain regulations here and there from Brussels are inconvenient, the benefits of our access to the single market cannot be overestimated. Sadly, the uncertainty being caused by those flirting with withdrawal from the EU is having a measurable and negative impact. Nature abhors a vacuum: businesses are hedging their bets and not investing in case of an abrupt withdrawal from the EU and corresponding loss of access to the vast European market.

I understand the desire for a more trade-focused European Union. That is why I support the European Commission’s drive to sign new EU Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), such as the EU-South Korea FTA enacted in 2011. This is estimated to be worth £0.5bn to the UK economy, a remarkable figure. Notably, American efforts to sign a similar FTA with the South Koreans have faltered. Efforts by the EU are also underway to sign FTAs with Singapore, Japan and the USA. As the world has globalised, it has become clear that we cannot stand alone. We live in an age of regional power blocs and if we left the EU we would struggle to get a good deal-or even a deal at all-from vibrant countries like South Korea. This is without even mentioning the failure of the World Trade Organisation Doha trade talks, which means that other avenues must be considered.

There are some who have suggested that withdrawal would be the panacea to our current problems. There is no denying that the Eurozone crisis has had a negative impact on our national economy. However, we cannot avoid the impact of the Eurozone crisis by leaving the EU. We are embroiled in the fortunes of the continent and we are best placed inside the tent rather than waiting outside. I would also venture that the Eurozone crisis will also eventually end; it seems really quite reckless to disrupt our relationship with Europe when they are our largest trading partner, receiving 40 per cent of our exports, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The reality is that we take the long view and remain engaged.

It is a shame that we have seemingly forgotten the pivotal role we have historically played in Europe. Britain has been involved in the affairs of our continental friends for many centuries, from the Congress of Vienna to the Maastricht Treaty. The values of the European Union are inherently British: freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality and the respect for human rights. The single market, one aspect of the EU that even most Euro sceptics support, would not have been created without our influence. I am reminded of the words by John Donne’s words: “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”. The EU is better as a result of our presence, and we are better as a result of the EU. To put it bluntly, the EU constitutes the world’s largest market and our natural allies in an increasingly globalised, complex world.

Finally, I should note that I recognise a number of problems with our current membership of the EU. There are too many unnecessary regulations, excessive interference from Brussels and ‘gold-plating’ of regulations by Whitehall. I would like to see measurable steps to effect a change in these matters; however, this change will not be achieved by flirting with withdrawal. It is time for us to engage with the EU constructively, help them through this crisis and thereby shape its future in our own interests.

David Cameron gives a press conference after an EU summit last October. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Buckland is MP for South Swindon and chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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