On 16 September 2015, Pro Europa hosted an event entitled 'What has the EU done for you?’ with Stephen Hinchley, Head of EU Affairs, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Winand Quaedvlieg, Head of Brussels office for the Dutch Business organisation - VNO-ONC.
The meeting, held under Chatham House rules, ranged widely over the issue of what the EU has done for business and those interested in environmental and wildlife issues.
Despite coming from very different vantage points, there was wide agreement that the EU has been beneficial, if often little appreciated. One likened the EU to a ‘little finger’- vital to a lot of our everyday life but frequently overlooked. The Single Market is vital to the EU economy and in promoting innovation, investment and healthy competition.
From the Dutch business perspective, the UK’s membership was seen as very important- the NL's second largest trading partner—and were Britain to leave this would be very detrimental to Dutch interests and Dutch policy objectives, particularly around free trade and the better regulation agenda. A UK exit would also bolster Dutch eurosceptics.
From the environmental perspective, over 80% of UK’s laws in this area now have an EU foundation and the Habitats Directive is a key piece of legislative protection.
Regarding the details of the UK’s renegotiation, one view was that most of what the UK was seeking was either already being done- e.g. better regulation agenda—or that both sides would come to a sensible understanding e.g. over the Role of the City and the relationship of non Eurozone to Eurozone members. The UK was also missing a trick in positioning its negotiation in narrowly self-interested terms, rather than offering its proposals as part of general renewal of the EU.
In winning a referendum, using the ‘peace’ argument was felt still to be powerful, but in the new context of a resurgent Russia and unsettled middle East. Business appreciates a peaceful and stable environment and the EU helps secure this. And seen from a wider perspective, the EU offers a set of values and principles that are worthy of upholding and defending.
In mobilizing supporters for the referendum, one organization announced that it would challenge both the in and out campaign groups to provide their visions of the future and share their manifestoes with members. There are important analyses to be made about the policy and constitutional effects of membership. Another view was that business should speak out now, as the issue is too important to keep silent (a mistake that Dutch business made in 2005.)
In framing the debate, one view was that the UK needed to find an ‘emotional trigger’ to spark support and interest in remaining. The debate so far had been very dry.
Most agreed that the UK would suffer economically by leaving and one argued that by definition the UK would receive worse trading terms on the outside. By definition 'UK out' has worse trading deals all round. There is a need to renegotiate all, with EU in a bitter mood.
A concern raised was that ‘negotiating fatigue’ and the bad backdrop of migration and Eurozone crisis might sway public opinion into voting ‘no’ without taking a longer term view.