John Major’s ‘get tough with Europe’ stance may have helped him regain
some credibility with the voting public, but its effect on British
business doesn’t look quite so positive
The Government’s policy of non-cooperation with the European Commission
in response to its maintenance of the beef derivative products ban has
brought relations with our EU partner states to a new low. The
distinctly undiplomatic ring to EC president Jacques Santer’s remarks
last week, when he talked of the UK acting in a ‘deplorable’ manner,
showed the strength of feeling against this country’s obstructionist
While the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party and certain tabloids have
been rejoicing at Downing Street’s new-found get-tough-with-Johnny-
Foreigner approach, the reaction among Britain’s business community has
been of an altogether different nature.
The transparent political manoeuvring to cast the EC in the role of
villain in the BSE affair - to save Conservative hides as much as those
of a bovine variety - and the unpleasant whiff of xenophobia
accompanying some of the anti-European posturing, has dismayed many of
those at companies who need to deal with Brussels. Beyond the obvious
political fall-out, many fear the UK’s negative blocking tactics could
have a commercial impact.
‘It’s fair to say business is very nervous, very worried,’ says Dick
Eberlie, director of the CBI’s Brussels office.
The CBI has just launched its long-planned ‘Business in Europe’
campaign, calling for the Government to work more closely with the
Commission, and privately there is a feeling at the employers’
organisation that Britain’s business interests are being ‘sacrificed’
for political ends.
Dirk Hudig, president of the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels and
manager of EU government relations at ICI, fears the Government’s
approach is ‘marginalising the UK considerably within the consultative
framework’ to the detriment of British business.
‘Whether you like it or not the UK is deeply entwined with Europe,’ he
says. ‘Fifty-three per cent of its exports are to the EU. If you mess
around with that it’s at your peril.’
Indeed, of all the business people and lobbyists whose views were
canvassed for this article, only one felt that the non-cooperation
policy would not be damaging.
‘I don’t think that businesses will be harmed because it shows the
British Government knows its mind and knows what’s good for business, as
do the sanctimonious French and Germans,’ argues Political Strategy
chairman Paul Twyman.
But Twyman’s is very much a minority opinion. One lobbyist went so far
as to suggest that the most effective means of getting your way in
Brussels at present is to secure the opposition of the British
Government to your proposals, thereby encouraging all the other member
states to adopt the contrary view. He was only half joking.
Margaret Daly, the lobbyist and former MEP who is the Conservative
candidate for Weston-Super-Mare at the next general election, says she
has been approached by concerned businessmen whose overseas partners and
colleagues have asked whether the UK will remain in the EU; disturbing
evidence of how the UK’s actions are being interpreted internationally.
EC officials have themselves expressed fears that potential inward
investors into the UK from Asia, the US and elsewhere may pull out
because of the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s attitude to the Union.
Added to this is the damage Britain’s reputation has sustained in its
key European export markets. Press coverage, once again, proving an
important factor here.
‘Intellectually, if you look at the media and public opinion it is
difficult to accept that the deterioration in the UK’s perception of
Europe is not matched by a similar deterioration in Continental Europe’s
perception of the UK,’ says head of the EC’s London press office Angel
The cross-border nature of business today means that British companies
will, come what may, have their views listened to by the EC. Yet while
the door will be kept open for British lobbyists - the system would
surely be less effective without their input - the ramifications of non-
cooperation are likely to manifest themselves in less immediately
‘Where there could be change in the longer term is in the financial
awards given to British companies and to the chances of British
companies bidding for EU contracts,’ says Entente International managing
director Peter Verhille.
British companies may also find that in the short term they have a
diminished influence on the formulation of the EC economic and social
policies so vital to their future growth and profitability. And
companies such as BT, which had been looking to the Government to
champion a further opening up of European markets to competition, may
find their plans left on hold due to the British-driven impasse in
So is British business keeping a low profile in Brussels and waiting for
the crisis to blow over? Or are more proactive steps being taken?
‘There’s been a certain distancing by some members of the business
community from Government policy, and I think that’s wise,’ says Elaine
Cruikshanks, managing director of Hill and Knowlton’s Brussels office.
One cannot fail to see the irony in corporations looking to disassociate
themselves from the actions of the party of business. A party which has
chosen to wrap itself in the flag as it strives to save the livelihoods
of Britain’s plucky farmers, butchers and abattoir workers. Livelihoods
put at risk by its own mishandling of the BSE scare since 1989.
The Government plainly sees Brussels-knocking as a vote winner - anyone
thinking this is not the case should ask themselves when they last heard
a British minister making a fuss about America’s ban on British beef, in
place for years.
In these strained circumstances, British companies are working to limit
the damage to their prospects inflicted by a government voted in to
represent their best interests.