Britain in Europe – Make Europe Work!
(Bob Lewis - President of the FBCCI)
When David Cameron promised in January 2013 that should his party win a majority at the 2015 election, he would hold an in/out referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union by the end of 2017, I must admit many Brits working and living in France were asking me if they should take French citizenship. As the coalition's term rolled on, a [Conservative] parliamentary majority looked unlikely and any promise of a referendum something of an empty one.
However, uncertainty about whether a referendum would ever take place did not deter those seeking to turn the debate on the UK in Europe negative.
Anti-European voices were heard loud and clear during the General Election campaign, from UKIP to the many other parties worried about a swing to UKIP in their constituencies. We all heard a great many anti-European messages as our social media feeds ran hot with the scare stories of how ruinous the EU is for Britain's future.
So whilst it seemed that few positive voices on the UK in the EU were heard during the election campaign, it also seemed that across the Channel politicians were unwilling to give a chance to David Cameron's vision of a renegotiation of Britain's role in the EU. Pre General Election, everyone from François Hollande to Jean-Claude Juncker poured scorn on the very idea that Europe's fundamentals could be unravelled by an unhappy bunch of Britons.
Events of May 7th have changed everything. A clear majority for David Cameron's conservatives makes the referendum “la certainty”, and suddenly that deafening silence from Europe over the issue of reform seems to be abating.
Only last week none other than Germany's Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Germany had a “huge interest” in the UK remaining a “strong and engaged” member of the EU. Germany and France hold general elections of their own in 2017, and the Conservatives have shown the way forward in winning a majority against the odds. Maybe EU reform is a vote winner after all?
So now the planets seem to aligning, I'd like to see and hear more voices from the Pro-European camp start to speak up for why the UK should be proud of its role in Europe, and recognise the part that Europe has played in recent economic successes. It won't surprise anyone to learn that I am a proud European.
In my 30 year career on both sides of the Channel, I have seen first-hand how the UK has become a better place to do business, and how Britons in Europe have become more comfortable taking their place in an international environment. Is it really such a bad thing that UK workers now have a minimum wage, longer holidays and paternity leave?
Have they stopped the British economy from continuing to grow? The common market has enabled Britain to attract many French skills, capital and know-how to help drive our economy.
I am proud of how many French business leaders I meet speak enviously of how the UK is showing a lead on job creation. I like hearing how the British economy is seen as a model for others in Europe to follow. This is influence at work. We can do much more to have the type of Europe we want if we work from within than if we agitate for a clean break.
So I look forward to the Queen's Speech as a moment to announce the referendum, I hope the Government will bring it forward if possible, and above all take advantage of David Cameron's stock being so high right now to start making friends in Europe. Now is the time for measured diplomacy and making the EU work for the UK. In French, the phrase “brosser dans le sens du poil” (literally 'brush the hair in the right direction' but translated as 'cosy up to' or 'rub up the right way') sums it up perfectly.
Cameron can be a master of rubbing people up the wrong way, but he has a window of opportunity where he can make Europe work for Britain. If the British Government can hold its side of the bargain we will hear the positive voices grow louder and louder. I call on those positive voices to seize control of the debate over Europe. Let's start talking up all the great things Europe has brought the UK, and look forward to what the UK can continue to bring to our friends in Europe.
Bob Lewis is the President of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the voice of Franco-British business in France. FOr more information on the FBCCI you can visit its website www.francobritishchamber.com