No sulks, please, we're pro-Europe says CBI

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Who could Niall FitzGerald and the CBI possibly be talking about when they complain about extreme and emotive arguments over the future of the European Union, an absence of rational debate and a "fog of rhetoric" that obscures business priorities? The chairman-designate of Unilever, who also heads the CBI's Europe committee, yesterday ducked and weaved to avoid agreeing openly with suggestions that the employers were attacking John Major's government. After spending so much time over the last few months insisting on its political neutrality, the CBI could hardly make this a party political issue.

Yet it is difficult to see who else the employers meant in their catalogue of criticisms of British obscurantism, ignorance and muddle over the development of policy towards Europe, if it was not the government responsible for overseeing negotiations on the future shape of the union.

The UK could only participate fully in political and economic decision- making if it "re-establishes its credibility as a constructive force committed to the European Union," said the CBI, which went on to thump the table about how business had to make its views heard loudly and often in the run-up to the start of the inter-governmental conference later this month.

As for monetary union, Mr FitzGerald moaned that the issue obscured other European Union priorities to do with improving competitiveness, growth and employment opportunities. EMU had "so hijacked the political debate here and elsewhere that there is almost a total absence of genuine understanding of the underlying economic arguments for and against," he said.

The occasion was the launch of a three month education and lobbying campaign, Business in Europe, which Mr FitzGerald claimed would bring a "much needed clarity to the UK's Euro-vision."

It is certainly true that inward looking British squabbles about Europe are hard for continental managers to comprehend, especially in great pan- European multinationals such as Unilever. The message is that we have got to get in there and fight from the inside with real commitment and common sense. However, the CBI's attack on Britain's Euro-muddle would be more convincing if the employers themselves were not so whole-heartedly behind the opt-out from the social chapter. Whatever the rights and wrongs of social legislation in raising costs for business, the opt-out is a prime example of Britain's preference for sulking outside the ring rather than going inside to fight.