My Adventures in the EU (Referendum 3)

2016-06-02 15.00.51I just came back from Wales.

What struck me on the motorway was the number of European lorries carrying stuff, lots of stuff, up and down. It seems pretty clear that whatever we do, Europe is always going to be our major trading partner.

I have spent my life mostly working for and running SMEs, small and medium enterprises. These are the concerns that are often said to be least in favour of the EU and to be looking forward to less “Red Tape”. How does the EU actually affect us? How has it affected me?

Lets take Joe. Joe is an antique dealer. He sells a van load of antiques to a dealer in France to be delivered to his shop. The bill of sale gives the address. When he gets there the customer says, unload half here and take the rest to my other shop on the other side of town. No problem. But Joe is stopped by the police, the address he’s going to is not on the bill of sale. He is operating a commercial vehicle in France without licence or any documentation. Joe’s van is impounded. OK, this was told to me. I’ve never met Joe. In my opinion Joe may be an urban legend. But lots of stuff like this, perhaps on a smaller scale, used to happen and can’t happen now. Perhaps its no concern of yours if Joe loses his van, or is too frightened to trade into Europe or loses his livelihood or is just poorer, but there are quite a few Joes and Joe may be your customer, your relative or your friend.

In the seventies I worked on rock festivals. Legal wasn’t my field but I knew from colleagues that getting documentation for visiting musicians from the states was a nightmare. I don’t know how bad it is today but it would be a serious setback for entertainers if those rules were applied to Europe.

In the eighties I worked for a company importing chairs from Spain. The chairs had to be bought by container. They had to go to Rotterdam first and used to get stuck there. We needed a customs agent at Felixstowe. Nowadays stuff like that comes in smaller quantities, in a van to the door. We pay by cheque or BACS.

Let’s think about K. They are a company that designs and sells furniture (I spent fifteen years running a furniture shop). K used a factory in Poland to make their furniture. One day the factory decided it could sell the furniture itself. In business you try to protect yourself against this sort of thing but it’s not always possible. K could have given up but they went to Poland, bought their own factory and filled their orders. It was a difficult time but most of their customers (including me) stuck with them and they survived. They mght have been able to do the same without EU rules but probably not quickly enough.

How about Shirley. Shirley’s parents split up and her siblings live in the UK. Shirley is very attached to her family and wants to join them here. She finds an employer and gets a work permit. Her employer knows she is a unique employee, will be an asset to their business and the Home Office agrees. But a junior diplomat in the embassy with a quota to make refuses her a visa. The employer appeals and wins but it’s a year later and Shirley has started a career in her own country. This is a real story, “Shirley” is a real person and is an American citizen. I was the employer. If Shirley’s mother had moved to the EU rather than the USA she would be here with her family now. You may think this is a good thing, that an English person should have that job and in any case we’re full up but I have never filled that position.

Later, one of my colleagues spent three years supervising a team of mental health workers in northern Germany. They would visit them every one or two months and do the rest on Skype. Apart from earning money this gave us some insight into Germany’s social care and mental health system and allowed us to spread ways of working that are not much appreciated in this country. EU rules allowed us to do this.

So I’m fairly positive about the EU but I realise there’s a cost for it. If people and vehicles and goods are to move freely than they have to pass similar driving tests, similar MOTs and the goods have to be of similar quality. And that means usually to the most strict standards applied by any member state. If you buy a German mattress for example, it will be made to British fire safety standards even though Germany never had these standards before and fought hard against having them imposed. If you have free movement of professionals then they have to be trained and regulated to a similar standard, maybe a standard that is alien to your own traditions. And all of that makes life more expensive. This, it seems to me is one of the “legs” on which the Brexit argument stands. And its a real argument. The problem is that if Europe is always going to be our major trading partner then we need a lot of this regulation to sell to them anyway. And other trading partners will and do impose their own requirements – but you have heard all this already if you’re interested in argument.

Next: A motorcyclist looks at the EU

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