On Monday, the UK’s manufacturing sector gave us a clear message. In Europe, in work. In a landmark report by the EEF, a trade association representing 6000 companies, manufacturers emphasised the importance of being part of the EU for their exports and business plans. 85% of firms surveyed would vote to remain in the EU. One third said that they would be less likely to increase investment in Britain if we were to leave the EU.
Politicians across the political spectrum like to talk about rebalancing the economy, creating jobs and rebuilding Britain’s industrial base. But few acknowledge the significance of EU membership for our manufacturing sector; in attracting inward investment, fostering innovation and gaining tariff-free access to the single market and beyond. In fact, UKIP stated in their 2010 manifesto that they would create one million new manufacturing jobs by – you guessed it – pulling out of the EU. The truth is that only the Liberal Democrats, as the unambiguous party of “In“, are sticking up for British jobs and a thriving, outward-looking manufacturing sector.
Indeed, the overall conclusions of the report were almost entirely in line with the Lib Dems’ approach to Europe. Rather than retreating to the margins or alienating our allies by demanding unilateral opt outs, manufacturers feel the UK should be taking the lead in reforming the EU as a whole. Expanding the single market, completing free trade deals with the US, India and Japan, increasing innovation spending, all of these are moves that could generate billions of pounds of growth and create tens of thousands of jobs. And all are goals which the Liberal Democrats, both in Westminster and Brussels, are working hard to achieve, for example by delivering a £60 billion EU research package for universities and innovative companies to support jobs in science and manufacturing
In my own region, the West Midlands, manufacturing employs 290,000 people, or 11.2% of the work force. Major firms like Jaguar Land Rover, which support thousands of jobs in the wider economy, have stressed to me the importance of the EU both for their exports to the world and the single market. And they want us to focus on creating more jobs, for example by completing negotiations over a transatlantic trade deal that could double British car exports to the US.
As we near the 2014 European elections, we need to ensure that businesses, large and small and across whole of the UK, make their voices heard over the hysterical cries of the xenophobic right. We have to spell out how serious the consequences would be for jobs and growth if Britain were to leave the EU, and the huge opportunities that are there to be seized if we remain. As Charles Kennedy put it so memorably at Liberal Democrat conference last month:
You can forget the Tories, you can forget Labour. If the voice of rational pro-Europeanism is going to be heard, there’s only one place it can come from: Us.
* Phil Bennion is Liberal Democrat MEP for the West Midlands.