Richard Branson’s new year message, including the stark warning quoted above, suggests that the silent majority of British business opinion are rousing themselves over what up until now has been a politico’s debate about Britain’s place in Europe. As Branson points out, the world is going to need its regional blocs to do its business. And as he pointed out in his interview with me in the New Statesman in July, the European Union is an asset for Britain, not a hindrance.
The truth is that the UK has never lost a vote on financial market regulation in the EU. We pay about £1 per person per week for membership, and for that don’t just get access to the world’s largest single market, but also shape its rules, and get the benefits of EU clout on global trade (trade agreements with 46 other countries). The tragedy of government rhetoric over the last two years is that it has demonised the status quo in Europe, without advancing an alternative. The fantasy island occupied by Boris Johnson of a club that is all single market and no social, environmental, or judicial cooperation doesn’t exist.
I hope the irony was not lost on anyone that the Prime Minister’s announcement of his big idea for his G8 Presidency – an EU-US trade deal – depends on, yes, the agreement of the EU operating by qualified majority. In the absence of global government, regional associations like the EU are going to become more important in the modern world. If it looks like Britain has forgotten that, and certainly that is the impression from large swathes of the Tory party, then the rest of Europe is going to say “shut up or get out”. In fact we should do neither: we should be advancing serious ideas for the EU to advance an agenda appropriate for all 28 members, including Britain.