Those of us on the Remain side in the recent EU referendum campaign may have Sunderland, if not inscribed on our hearts, then at least burned into our memories. It was around 1am on Friday 24 June when news of the result from that great northern city, famous for its rapid election counts, reached the Poole civic centre where I watched the results. The North East was known to be strongly pro-Brexit and pundits predicted a six-point lead for Leave would indicate a victory for Remain. When the 20-point margin was announced it was pretty clear that a majority in England would vote to leave the European Union.
As a Green MEP, jobs in car plants are not the sort of jobs I favour dominating our economy, but I acknowledge the significance of this industry at the current time. Some 700,000 people work in the sector across the UK, with 8,000 at Nissan in Sunderland. These jobs support many more in the wider economy, leading the Wall Street Journal to declare Sunderland “the UK’s Detroit”. I would love to see our economy transition to a future where an equal number of people work in the renewable sector – including manufacturing turbines and solar panels – but we will not achieve that by simply destroying our existing economy.
Last week, Nissan announced that its investment in the UK, including at its Sunderland plant, was on hold following Brexit. The reactions from two commentators with large stakes in the economy of Sunderland, revealed explicitly for the first time, the choice about the future of our post-Brexit economy.
First, Carlos Ghosn, global chairman of Nissan, stated that he is reasonably optimistic that there will be a sensible outcome in terms of trade from the Brexit negotiations. However, he reiterated that he will not be making any decisions to invest further in the Sunderland plant until the nature of the UKs trading relationship becomes clear. This is to be expected. As Ghosn made clear, the plant in Sunderland makes cars for sale direct into the single market without tariffs. With four in every five UK manufactured cars being exported, and 58 per cent of them to other EU countries, Nissan’s plant could be based anywhere within the European Union. It does not make sense to be in a country outside the single market, as this would make the cars it produces more expensive for consumers.
The second point of view was offered by James Rambotham, chief executive of North East England Chamber of Commerce. He said that the response to rocky investment emphasised the need for the UK to become “more business friendly and give confidence to employers like Nissan”. When pressed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on what this vague phrase actually meant, he clarified it:
‘We should look to examples in other parts of the world…look to what happened in Singapore 50 years ago when they gained independence from Malaysia and set out to make that country the best and the most open for business.”
He went on to describe how Nissan had appreciated our (lax) employment laws when they were seeking to “restructure” their business. This is the verbal equivalent of a firing gun on the race to the bottom for British workers. A glance at the latest annual report from Human Rights Watch reveals what life in a Singapore-style economy might be like. The government there maintains restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and arrests and detains people for virtually unlimited periods without charge or judicial review. Foreign domestic workers are excluded from many key labour protections, such as limits on daily work hours and are barred from unionisation. For good measure, the country also has the death penalty and refuses to recognise LGBT rights.
These two commentators have cast the spotlight on a fundamental debate we now need to have as a nation following the EU referendum. In a global economy controlled by corporations, should we join the race to the bottom or take up the strategy of cooperating in large economic blocs to resist corporate power? In spite of its neoliberal ideology, the EU has taken actions to restrict corporate power. This is one of the principle reasons I argued for our continued membership; outside the EU there is a danger we will seek to compete with other countries by eating away at our own social and environmental protections and by becoming a tax haven.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the referendum campaign was the shocking effectiveness of empty nationalistic rhetoric. I saw meaningless phrases such as “let’s make Britain great again!” and “make June 24 Independence Day” ignite audiences. It is now clear for all to see that what these faux patriots are actually offering is a country that exploits its own people and prostitutes its resources to global corporate power. This is neither taking back control nor making our country great.
The process of globalisation has challenged our sense of identify and control. Many people across the European economy understand that their jobs are now controlled by corporations with no national allegiance, and find this an uncomfortable situation to be in. To know that decisions so fundamental to your livelihood are made beyond the reach of your democratic vote is unsettling. This is why for me a key phrase of my pro-EU rhetoric was about the importance of making globalisation work for everybody. This means that we need politicians who recognise that the main division within the global economy is not between nations but between corporations and citizens. Standing up for citizens against the increasing and damaging power of corporate power will become one of the defining battles of post-Brexit Britain.