Douglas Alexander: Britain is flirting with disaster on possible EU exit

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THE General Election in May represents a fundamental choice for Britain. I don’t remember an election in my lifetime that was so unpredictable but also where there was so much at risk.

At stake is the question of how we can best protect our country’s global status while also promoting living standards across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Unlike the Conservatives or Ukip, Labour are clear that protecting Britain’s place in Europe is key to answering that challenge. We understand that our membership of the EU isn’t just about the wealth of the City of London. In an age of countries the size of continents, our membership of Europe gives us access and influence to a global trading bloc of 500 million consumers, and brings jobs and investment to cities like Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, and Hull. And that means jobs, livelihoods, and prosperity would be put at risk if Britain were to leave the EU.

The facts speak for themselves. We already know that millions of UK jobs rely on our EU membership, but in Yorkshire alone the most recent figures suggest that close to 350,000 jobs are associated with our EU membership. The Office for National Statistics suggests that 1,500 businesses in Yorkshire are exporters of goods to the EU, and annual exports from Yorkshire to Europe are worth over £6m a year to the region’s economy.

The biggest risk for the prosperity of people and businesses in Yorkshire is the prospect of EU exit, and this won’t just affect profit margins for big business, it will be household incomes and pounds in people’s pockets that take the hit too.

According to the CBI, the net benefit to UK GDP of membership is around four to five per cent – between £62bn and £78bn. That suggests a household benefit of around £3,000 a year – and individual benefit of around £1,125.

But for the past four years, the business community here has watched with increasing alarm as some Conservative politicians have gone from flirting with exit from Europe, to advocating it. They know that leaving Europe, either by design or by default, is dangerous for jobs and investment in the UK.

Yet the risk of David Cameron setting Britain on a conveyor belt to exit is real. So in the coming election it is vital that Yorkshire’s business community find its voice alongside those politicians willing to speak up and speak out and make the case for Britain to play a leading role at the heart of a reformed EU.

Today I am making a direct appeal to employers, business managers and company owners. This appeal is not based on partisan interest but on a clear assessment of our national interest. Your voice must be heard. Because if you wait, it could be too late.

The risks of David Cameron’s high-stake gamble on Europe could not be greater for Yorkshire. Continued investment and growing productivity of Yorkshire-based businesses are vital to helping drive up living standards in villages, towns and cities across the county. At a time of falling living standards, with real wages dropping, and one in five people in the UK stuck on low pay, walking away from the world’s largest single market could prove disastrous.

The uncertainty created by David Cameron’s arbitrary timetable for an EU referendum could lead businesses to defer investment decisions, and in turn directly impact on jobs and living standards across the region.

David Cameron knows how this could end. As an adviser in John Major’s government, he watched first-hand as the Conservative Party diminished Britain’s standing in Europe once before. He saw how the Conservatives left relations with our European allies in such a bad state of repair that an incoming Labour government was required to establish a “step change” in Britain’s relations with Europe in 1998 to get back onto a more stable footing.

The tragedy for Britain is that it doesn’t need to be like this. There is an alternative to Britain stumbling out of Europe. That is why a newly elected Labour government would set about enhancing the UK’s influence in Europe and reset relations with other EU leaders after five years of David Cameron’s failed approach.

In the past, there have been a number of member states who aligned with Britain on key economic and political issues within the EU, but that camp has dwindled in the past four years, and I believe that’s both bad for Britain and bad for Europe.

Even when Britain’s position has support from other member states, EU leaders are becoming less and less likely to ally with David Cameron because they think he already has one foot out of the door.

So as we head into this General Election year, it’s clear that Britain needs a government that recognises our membership of the EU as vital for promoting prosperity and living standards. That is why the right road for Britain, and for the people of Yorkshire, is not exit from Europe, but reform in Europe.