Richard Turnbull: Moral and economic issues in the EU Referendum

This is a transcript of a speech given as part of a debate on the EU Referendum. The event was organised by James Cowper Kreston and held at the Oxford Union.


The EU Referendum – some moral and economic perspectives

Thank you for the invitation to speak this evening, and thank you also for putting on this event.

How, then, will we decide between the competing visions for Europe, for the future of the United Kingdom and our relationship, not only with Europe, but with the world? Will we decide on the arguments about economics, borders or sovereignty? Will we make our decision on the basis of statistics? And if so, which particular statistics will we rely upon? Or maybe we will decide on the basis of propaganda – but who’s propaganda would we trust; the government’s, the Brexit campaign or some other vested interest?

My initial observation is that larger businesses, especially those with a significant export market to Europe, tend to be more swayed by the economic arguments for remaining (that is, primarily the argument of access to markets) than smaller businesses that tend to be more exercised by the impact of regulation (that is, the control of markets)

So, this evening, I want to open up a different kind of question, to try and bring a moral economic perspective into the debate, or perhaps two questions, one about the nature of markets, access to markets, trade and employment and another about regulation, control, business development, entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.

The most depressing argument in this debate is….the EU costs us £55m per day (gross amount, no account of rebate or EU payments to the UK) or £35m a day (net of the rebate and closer to the amount actually paid over) or £23m a day (net of EU payments for farming and poorer areas support – but not counting the payments to universities for research). Cash and economic costs and benefits are not the same thing. We must go deeper in our analysis. And we should ask questions about purpose, the long-term economic costs and benefits, not just cash payments.

The most significant economic argument is concerned with access to markets. The reason it is the most important question is that economic growth is a necessary condition for individual, family, community and national welfare. This is a moral question. Without economic growth we damage employment prospects, reduce the tax base and stifle innovation. Economic growth is not a zero-sum game and is also a prerequisite for the political debates around wealth and income creation and distribution. In other words, unless we bake the cake in the first place, we cannot debate how the cake should be divided.

So, we should ask how best, then, to bake the cake. Access to markets means trade and exchange, import and export, competition and so on. The freedom to trade has shaped and transformed the world we live in. So, we know the EU represents the largest single market in the world (with the US being second). The UK is the largest market for exports from the EU (though only at around 16% of total EU exports), but for the UK around 44% of our total exports go to the single European market, though that percentage has been falling.

Does this mean that the UK couldn’t negotiate its own free-trade agreements with other countries, or that either new or even traditional markets could not be opened up or expanded? No, it does not mean that, but it does mean that we need to take very seriously indeed, the opportunity for access to the world’s largest single market and surrender that only after very careful thought. To lose that access is not irreplaceable, but would certainly damage short and medium term growth prospects, and there would be a cost to the negotiation of multiple trade agreements which may, or, more likely, may not, obtain equally favourable trade terms.

And we certainly need to be wary of naivety; the oft-quoted Norway model is illusory; Norway pays 90% of the UK per capita payments, they have to observe the single market regulations, and, indeed, it is worth quoting The Economist reporting a Norwegian minister as follows, ‘if you want to run Europe, you must be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join Norway’ (Economist, 4th March, 2016, p20).

So, let me turn to the second question, that of regulation. The impact of the EU on the regulation of the market is undeniable. Part of the problem stems from the fact that what we read about in the newspapers is the silly stuff – the size of a vegetable, bendiness of bananas and cucumbers, regulations on washing-up gloves and so on. In reality the regulative impact of the EU extends far and wide into employment, market regulation, discrimination, health and safety, and into industry sectors from investment management to transport and shipping.

How are we to assess the nature and impact of this regulatory regime? Let’s start with the negative impact. There is little doubt that there is a ‘regulatory bureaucracy’ about the EU which rather reinforces the observation of Andrew Bailey, formerly the deputy-governor of the Bank of England, that ‘the main consequence of an increase in regulation is an increase in the number of regulators.’ Similarly, I think there is a cogent argument that EU regulation is an easier burden to bear for larger firms than smaller and medium-sized enterprises; and, in my view, it is SMEs who are the powerhouses of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth, indeed, collectively also of employment. Perhaps the Working Time Directive is an example of that. The directive, with the laudable aim of protection, is, however, an example of the different cultural mind-set between the UK and a Europe that sees the control of working hours as a governmental responsibility. You can see how, with a regulation like the Working Time Directive, a larger organisation with the resources of an HR department, would find those rules easier to manage and implement than an SME. Some of the industry-specific regulation is of a similar outlook – so, a significant number of effective, focussed, co-owned and co-invested small investment management firms find the burden of the regulatory regime focussed and geared towards the larger investment management firms, with their resources and capacity – all investment management firms with funds under management of more than £100m are treated the same, subject to the same requirements, reporting and regulations. So, I am persuaded that there is a negative impact of EU regulation.

However, there is a ‘but.’ First, I believe, morally, that the freest access possible to markets should be encouraged, but as we know, the free market is never quite as free as we think or might like. So, the single market itself is surrounded by a tariff wall; free Europe or fortress Europe? And in addition to tariff walls around the single market, because a free market is never entirely free, and indeed is populated by participants and players who do not possess perfect information, and, I might add, are not perfect and flawless characters, a degree of regulation is necessary. Second, therefore, the idea that leaving the EU means we can simply sweep away all of this regulatory regime is neither right nor appropriate. Even if we left the EU, and abandoned the more bizarre or restrictive regulations, the reality is that any independent UK government is going to impose the overwhelming majority of the current regulatory regime. So, although, I too would like changes, I too find the bureaucracy and extent of EU regulation irksome, it is naïve in the extreme, to think that leaving the EU would enable all of this regulation to be simply abandoned.

So, where have we got to? We have, I think, established the importance for economic well-being of the single market; with the challenge that we might lose other opportunities, but with much uncertainty. We have also argued that there is a negative impact of a regulatory regime bearing heavily on SMEs; yet with the reality that it would not all be swept away by leaving.

How to decide? I remain sceptical of the campaigns and the propaganda from both directions! Rather, ask this question, what will best enable the maximum flourishing of the economy which in turn will enable the flourishing of individuals, families, communities and the nation? Is access to the single market and its benefits too significant to surrender? Is the regulatory regime of the EU sufficiently oppressive and burdensome that it prevents SMEs from flourishing? Of course, there are other considerations, non-economic arguments about borders and sovereignty, but as business people, we need to assess fairly the moral imperative of ensuring a successful business environment for the country. The answer to that question might vary from person to person, but let us at least ask the right questions.

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Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.