Last week David Cameron gave his long-awaited speech on Europe, firing the starting gun for months and years of debate and negotiation about Britain’s role in the continent, followed by a much-discussed referendum on the issue.  What does this mean for independent retailers? Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski spoke to key politicians to find out.

The Eurosceptic view

DanielHannanDaniel Hannan MEP

“What proportion of our total economy depends on the single market? Go on, have a guess. Half? A quarter? In fact, 70 per cent of our GDP is wholly domestic, in that it involves no cross-border trade at all. If I pop down to the newsagent and buy a copy of The DailyTelegraph, I am adding to Britain’s GDP, but not to our international commerce. Of the remaining 30 per cent of our economy, 44 per cent (according to the latest ONS figures) is EU-related, and 56 per cent is tied up with trade in the rest of the world. In other words, the Single Market accounts for a total of 13 per cent of our economy. Yet the other 87 per cent still has to comply with 100 per cent of Brussels directives and regulations, on everything from the Temporary Workers’ Directive to the 48-hour week.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Swiss rely on a series of bilateral free trade accords with the EU. Their exporters are obliged to meet EU standards when selling to the EU, just as they are obliged to meet Japanese standards when selling to Japan. But they are not required to impose these standards on their domestic economy, nor on their exports outside the EU. Not that this deal has prejudiced their market access in Europe, far from it. In 2011, the Swiss sold more than four times as much per head to the EU as we did.

Couldn’t Britain do just as well as Switzerland? If seven million Swiss are able to enjoy the highest standard of living in Europe, couldn’t 62 million Britons, a trading, maritime people, connected to every continent on the planet, manage their own affairs?

The EU has been very good news for some people: lobbyists, regulators, big farmers, multi-national corporations, giant banks, diplomats, politicians. But it has brought little benefit to the small and medium enterprises that provide the bulk of employment in this country, and whose taxes generate the revenue that many of these groups live off. Retailers, in particular, face all the compliance costs without, unless they are selling most of their goods into the EU, even any notional benefits.

I’m sure we’ll hear all sorts of scare stories in the months ahead about inward investment drying up and jobs depending on Brussels and blah blah. But we heard exactly the same scare stories from precisely the same people about keeping the pound. Surely they don’t expect us to fall for it this time.”

Priti Patel MP

“David Cameron is right to call for a new settlement between Britain and the European Union and then put the matter to the British people in a referendum. His commitment to reform the EU will make Britain and Europe more competitive internationally and enable us to respond to the global challenges we face. This will give business more certainty about the Government’s plans to support economic growth and job creation.

“Since the last referendum on Europe in 1975 the EU has changed beyond all recognition as it has taken more powers away from Britain as part of its dogmatic pursuit of ever closer union and the establishment of a European superstate. The British public are fed up with this unaccountable and bureaucratic institution controlling their lives and costing them money.

“While the Labour Party believes in surrendering more powers to Europe, handing more money over to the EU and slavishly accepting every regulation Europe devises, the Conservative Party believes in letting the people decide. By promising a referendum, the Prime Minister will end years of uncertainty and frustration with our relationship with Europe and settle the matter for a generation.”

The pro-Europe view

Toby PerkinsToby Perkins MP

“As discussion of Britain’s relationship with Europe has clocked up a large number of column inches in recent weeks, some newsagents and convenience store owners may be wondering whether the debate has any relevance to their struggles to make ends meet.

The answer is that it does. When the Tory-led government came into power promising to slash public spending and raise taxes to eradicate the deficit, many businesses wondered how it would affect them.

However, as the full implications have dawned with the squeeze in people’s incomes and fall in consumer confidence, few small business owners will have failed to notice the impact on their sales.

Similarly, anything that weakens our economic growth and job prospects is bad for small businesses whether they sell to the public or other firms.

At a time when everyone knows we need to increase export sales and attract investment and jobs in emerging industries, it is difficult to see how anyone can think it is in our national interest to restrict export markets, make foreign trade more difficult and discourage that investment from firms that want a base from which to sell across Europe. At the very time when it should be boosting business confidence, the government is creating uncertainty and confusion.

The world is changing. Reuters estimate that the global middle class – 2 billion people today-  will more than double to 4.9 billion by 2030. Opportunities will exist by then that we couldn’t even imagine today, and as that change occurs a hidebound yearning for the Britain of the past just won’t cut it. Some might wish that change away, just as others rue the invention of the computer or blacksmiths curse the invention of the car. But the world will change nonetheless and Britain can be a confident and important force in the world’s largest trading block or a shrinking factor in a growing world.”

HAVE YOUR SAY: What do you think of Britain’s place in Europe?  Does it have a large effect on your business?  let us know in the comments below