Opinion

Why I joined 200 businesses to argue we’re safer, stronger and better off in a reformed EU

7 min read

23 February 2016

Entrepreneur Ian Baxter explains why, despite family pressure, he is an advocate of remaining part of the European Union on the back of David Cameron obtaining "special status" for the UK, and ahead of a June referendum when the public will ultimately decide.

My father is a board member of Business for Britain. One of my three brothers is a regional chairman for Vote Leave. If quitting can involve commitment, the other two are also committed “quitters”. 

In the “noughties” I campaigned with Business for Sterling to keep the pound, even sharing a platform with that other well known “Nige”. As someone from a Eurosceptic family who has always been sceptical about certain aspects of the European Union myself, it’s perhaps surprising that I’m fully signed up to the Remain campaign. Here’s why I signed the Stronger In campaign’s letter in The Times today.

Of course, the European Union isn’t perfect. Only a fool would deny it has major challenges around the euro and the Schengen free movement area for example. But whilst the brickbats are flying about its weaknesses, it’s best not to forget the important benefits the EU has given to Europe and most importantly to the UK. In my judgment such advantages clearly outweigh any downsides.

In the 1975 referendum people British people voted to join the “common market”, a free trade bloc. The 67 per cent who voted yes to free trade then have not been let down. Customs barriers have been demolished and tariffs removed. 

It’s much easier to run cross-border European businesses and it’s illegal for any member to discriminate against companies from another. Monopolies and rip-offs have been challenged, quality and safety rules have been standardised, we’ve absorbed low cost economies to the east and south of us but made sure those economies offer workers the same protections we’d expect over here. 

The European Economic Community (EEC) we joined has grown into a free market of 500 million people, the biggest economy in the world. It accounts for 45 per cent of our exports worth £229bn each year, sustaining three million jobs. Are we really prepared to reinstate the kind of trade barriers Switzerland and Norway face? As someone who has built two substantial European freight businesses in the UK and set up one in Finland, I can’t get my head around Britain wanting to take such a backward step.

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In 1975, WWII was only 30 years previous and Europe still bore the scars. We were in the midst of the Cold War and Spain, Portugal and Greece were emerging from dictatorships. At home we faced troubles of our own in Northern Ireland. Whilst nobody is going to start a war if we leave the EU, the fact is the EU has brought peace to our continent, helped calm the conflict in Ireland, and assisted many countries to become successful democracies and market economies; good neighbours for us, great markets for our goods and services.

The fact is that leaving the EU would make it harder for us to influence the future of our continent. And what a moment for us to stand aside. The European project is (unsurprisingly in my view) stuck in the mud. The global economy is creaking once again. Terrorism, conflict in the Ukraine, the migrant crisis and the risks of climate change show that there is still heavy lifting to do to keep Europe safe, prosperous and free. In or out we will still be affected by what happens on our doorstep, still losers if their economies don’t grow, still impacted by decisions that we won’t have made. And yet Britain, as one of Europe’s biggest and strongest economies and most well connected and influential countries has such a great opportunity to lead. By re-shaping our relationship with the EU, David Cameron has shown it is possible to do so.

No other prime minister, not even Margaret Thatcher, has succeeded in rolling back the tide on European integration. We now have a “special status”. In Europe, but not ruled by it. We’re not signed up to “ever closer union”, our currency is protected forever. So is the role of the City of London as the EU’s principal financial centre, the main global centre for trading in the euro ironically enough. 

We’ve stopped the abuse of our benefits system by a few and protected the real benefits of immigration for our economy. In short we’ve secured the best of both worlds.

Winston Churchill, who let’s remember was one of the first to have a vision of a united Europe, once reputedly said “if Britain should have to choose between Europe and the open sea, she should always choose the open sea”. I get it. But we don’t have to choose. Thanks to Cameron we can stay in a reformed EU that works for us and help shape the future of our continent for the benefit of generations to come.

Open letters penned by business leaders have become a bit of a trend, as we found out when the likes of Luke Johnson, Sherry Coutu and Duncan Cheatle voiced their concerns and let politicians know what they want from the next government before last year’s general election.

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