You have to laugh, really. Great swathes of the British business community are jetting off to Lisbon and the Algarve to entertain clients and customers, to meet and greet politicians from home and abroad, to ensure that their expensive sponsorship is securing pan-European airtime and to boast about the ease of reaching the football festival between Continental business meetings. Then some of them arrive home and tell anyone who will listen – some even write letters to the newspapers and to the Prime Minister – that Britain must stay out of Europe, must withdraw from its constitution and must resist any attempts to forge a single European economy.
The paradox is one for politicians – it’s the sort of double-standard they indulge in every day. But away from the clowns of the UK Independence Party, the Conservative Party and a directionless Labour Party, it will – as ever – be the businesses of the UK, which trade across national boundaries and which really run the UK economy and its place in foreign markets, that will decide the future of a European constitution. To that end, British business has a vital role to play in the debate that will rage until a referendum on the constitution, pencilled in for 2006.
Enlightened business has two key roles to play. First, it needs to take over the case for European integration from pro-Europe politicians in the Government, who are currently constrained for electoral reasons from developing the arguments properly. Second, and more importantly, it needs to find a single, plausible pro-Europe business leader to lead the “Yes” campaign for the single currency and the European constitution. I have just such a figure in mind – I will name him and would encourage anyone who knows him to urge him into the role of leadership.
But first to the nature of the challenge, which makes pro-European business leadership so important right now. The “No” campaigners have split families and businesses. For instance, the Sainsburys, only a few of whom are Lords, are divided – David Sainsbury, a Labour minister, is a Yes man (as it were); Tim Sainsbury is a No. The latter, along with people such as Sir Crispin Davis of Reed Elsevier and hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair at the weekend to say that a European structure would “harm our prosperity”.
The anti-Europeans – they dislike being called that, but it is hard to perceive that they are not so – make their case on the alleged ceding of our legal and regulatory sovereignty to Brussels. But we acceded to European law in 1973 and endorsed doing so in a referendum of 1975 (when a 2:1 against ratio was converted into a 2:1 endorsement, incidentally – much the same task with which we are currently presented). Little Englanders will go misty-eyed at the memory of Margaret Thatcher deploying a British veto in Europe, the details of which they can’t really remember, but the fact is that the European Union, ratified in the Single European Act of 1986, can make decisions on our behalf that we don’t like and has been able to do so for some years.
To separate ourselves from such decisions now would be to attempt to isolate ourselves from European legislation over monumental matters such as harmonisation of trade regulation and tariffs – issues which critically address the national prosperity that the anti-Europeans profess to defend. That would be prosperity, incidentally, on which some 3.5 million UK jobs depend for equal access to European markets. Meanwhile, some 750,000 UK enterprises are calculated to depend on trade within Europe, while foreign trade overall accounts for one-third of our national earnings (compared to some ten per cent for the US, with which the anti-Europeans would have us throw in our lot).
Blair can’t make this case, because it would play into the hands of the Europhobes in the General Election campaigns that are poised to begin. While Blair keeps his head down, it falls to pro-European businesses to win the argument. But who is to lead the push? Europhiles Lord Marshall of British Airways, Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP Group and Niall Fitzgerald of Unilever and Reuters may be deemed to have shot their European bolts. The pro-Europe campaign needs fresh blood.
Simon Buckby, who formerly headed lobby group Britain in Europe, who has been the media pundit this week extolling the pro-European case and who, in his spare time, occupies a desk near mine for his day job, cites Sir Chris Gent as the obvious candidate.
Gent built Vodafone to be Britain’s second-largest company after BP, is a Tory and Blair’s favourite businessman. He has money and he is pro-European. He is the ideal candidate to lead British business into European integration. So, come on, Gent – your country and your continent need you.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon