A cowardly business

On the stormy battlefield of Europe where are the captains of industry when they are needed?
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At a rain-sodden reception on the House of Commons terrace the other day with the marquee flapping in the wind, the European Movement presented a plucky but somewhat beleaguered spectacle at its annual party. As the Europhobic storm gathers pace, are they ready to fight back?

They are a gentle, sensible lot, a mix of some of the old buffers of all parties who fought the good fight back in the 1975 referendum and keen young people, mainly Labour. But, it must be said, many have the slightly distrait air of intellectual Don Quixotes - not the bare-knuckle fighters needed for a dirty fight in the ring with Sir James Goldsmith.

The trouble with these rational Europhiles is that they have drunk deep of the company of the best and brightest of European brains at Anglo-German Konigswinter conferences. The European idea courses so naturally through their blood with the Gewurtztraminer that they may forget the real battle for the hearts and minds of the British voter. After discussing the far horizons in Euro think-tanks, they find it hard to attend to the inane buffoonery of Teresa Gorman, Jimmy Goldsmith and Bill Cash.

Giles Radice, seizing hold of this venerable organisation founded by Winston Churchill, is assembling a credible battle line with cohorts from each party, but this is the only serious, unequivocal, pro-European campaign making the case. The rest is silence.

Where are the big battalions of industry, and where their captains? Strangely mute. Where are all those other forces in British life who know the only future is European? Afraid to speak out. They have yet to mount their campaign. Nor are they funding those who are campaigning. The European Movement has a pathetic pounds 400,000 to compete against pounds 20m in the Goldsmith camp.

As newspapers swell with pages of Goldsmith-backed Europhobic advertising, the European Movement has not the funds to retaliate. Remember this: at the start of the 1975 referendum campaign the public were two-to-one against staying in. By voting day, they had swung round two-to-one in favour. Complacently, pro-Europeans assume the same thing would happen again, whatever the wording may be. But there would be a crucial difference - last time the pro-Europeans had (at present-day prices) pounds 6.6m to spend on a brilliant, high-profile campaign. The antis were weak and impoverished with only $600,000 to spend. Money matters.

Virtually all CBI members and leading businessmen believe our future lies only in Europe, and that we must be serious and influential players. With 58 per cent of our exports going to Europe, that is hardly surprising.

Industrialists have in the past two months shown some small signs of awakening from their stupor of cowardice, frightened by the way the Europhobes have been shooting into an open goal. Adair Turner, head of the CBI, has made some rousing speeches dismissing "the little Englander fantasy as a product of cloud-cuckoo land". The CBI has organised a high-profile series of conferences up and down the land, starting in a fortnight, at which big hitters of industry will speak up for Europe.

But British captains of industry remain reluctant to lead from anywhere other than the reticent rear. They are exceedingly difficult to tempt on to television or to enter the political fray. In Britain they have never taken their proper place as responsible public figures who wield a large amount of politically unaccountable power. In Europe their counterparts play a key part in national life, here they prefer a quiet word in the corridors of power.

Programmes such as the BBC's Newsnight constantly request industrialists to speak on Europe and other relevant political and economic matters, but they usually refuse. "The business culture in Britain puts the interests of their shareholders first, ahead of considerations of the wider society," says Peter Horrocks, editor of Newsnight. "They fear being drawn into politics and won't appear on programmes to debate with politicians."

He cites a telling example: a Newsnight item discussed a possible successor to the ERM, short of full EMU. The head of Peugeot in France was eager to explain why he felt Britain's Black Wednesday devaluation had created an unfair advantage for British cars in the French market. But the head of Rover declined to reply.

Adair Turner agrees that it is difficult to get industrialists to give their views on television. "They had hoped the talk of withdrawal from Europe would burn itself out, but now they see they have to speak up, at least at our conferences." There is another unspoken problem: most industrialists are Tory and are uneasy about widening a rift that may end up destroying their own party. They say, off the record, of course they would speak out if there was a real threat of withdrawal, but not until then.

But business is in the best position to explain about Europe. For example, Turner says, business wants the single market to progress rapidly. That means more regulation, not less. The "bonkers bureaucrats of Brussels" should be urged to press ahead. For British Airways, British Telecom and the energy industries are among those successful businesses still waiting for Europe to abolish unfair state subsidies so we can compete on a level playing field. More regulation often works in our favour, not against. But who is standing up to say so, in ways that the public can understand? Who is buying newspaper advertising space to explain what the single market means? Not those who have the most to lose.

Conventional politics fail on this issue. Every time a Tory pro-European speaks up, they hear the sound of tearing as another rip appears in their party's flimsy fabric. Not surprisingly, they speak low and in code. Labour has its own dilemma: with good European credentials established by Blair, shouldn't they now keep quiet and let the Tories rip themselves apart? So they too are muted. The LibDems protest that they speak out all the time, but the press bins their speeches when they talk European.

That there are differences of opinion abut EMU in 1999 does not excuse the hugely pro-European British establishment for letting the most important political issue of the day fall into the rogue hands of Goldsmith, Gorman, Murdoch and Conrad Black. Cowardice paralyses those who should now be strapping on their armour and clashing their shields for the European idea. The antis move their battle lines forward unchecked. The European movement is passing the hat round big business - and they had better start putting in serious money. They had better join it, swell its ranks and make it win. If they prevaricate much longer, the battle will be lost before they ever take to the field.