Europe is Britain's business

The Government's chilly attitude to the EU is making companies such as Toyota think twice about investing in Britain. That's why, says Christopher Mackenzie, businessmen like him are looking forward to a Labour victory
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The Independent Online
A quick glance at any map of the world shows that Britain belongs in Europe. And a quick glance at our trade figures shows why we should be glad of this geographical accident. British business benefits greatly from our membership of the European Union. Around 60 per cent of our visible exports are already to our European partners.

We sell more goods to Germany than to the United States or Japan, more to the Netherlands than all the Asian tiger economies together, more to France than to the Commonwealth.

The single market gives our firms access to more than 370 million consumers in the European Union, with massive new markets on the horizon through enlargement. Twelve countries are keen to join, bringing in another 100 million people. It is a surprise that there are some people in the UK who have any doubts about our membership.

But already the EU's GDP of pounds 5,350bn makes it a bigger trade bloc than Nafta, its North American counterpart. It is a larger integrated economy than the US and contains five of the world's richest countries. For British businesses today, this is not foreign territory. This is our home market.

Being a major partner in this powerful trading bloc gives us clout in the world. Together with our partners, we have much greater influence on global trade talks and negotiations to shape the world economy than we ever could standing alone. It allows us to argue for improvements to benefit all our firms and businesses.

This massive market is the principal reason why Britain has proved such a powerful magnet for inward investment, investment which we all agree is vital to our future prosperity.

You don't need to worry about the nuances of translation of Toyota president Hiroshi Okuda's remarks last week to get his general meaning. It was very clear. It is a threat to jobs. Inward investors are unhappy about Britain's increasingly sour relationship with our European partners and are worried that this relationship is getting worse. I share their concerns.

It is a message which is increasingly echoing through many boardrooms in Britain. They know our economic future is inextricably tied to Europe, and to Europe's prosperity. Towing Britain off to the Far East is an alternative only for the fevered imagination of the most diehard anti-European.

They fear the drift of the Government under the pressure of Tory Euro- scepticism. They are deeply worried about the growing whispers from Conservative ranks about renegotiation or even withdrawal. Those supporting these views are getting bolder by the day.

Divisions in the Tory ranks were all too evident last week when John Major was unable to persuade his own candidates to sign up to his European policy at the coming election. It sends a message to business that the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory party is already too powerful for Mr Major to control. It is a message which reinforces the view that Britain is lacking strong leadership at a crucial time for our future. It is no wonder that business is concerned about what might happen if the Tories are re- elected.

These fears contrast to the positive message on Europe offered by the Labour leader, Tony Blair. It is a message of constructive partnership which is winning many friends in the business world.

It does not mean Britain should be a pushover in Europe. There are tough negotiations ahead. Every citizen of every EU member country expects their government to fight to protect and promote their interests. Even Tories must accept that Mr Blair will be no pushover.

But business wants the Government to be more positive towards Europe, less reluctant and half-hearted, to start co-operating with our partners on common and shared goals. No matter what the present Government says, this is not the impression it leaves. This damages our relationship with the other countries in Europe. It damages our chances of getting what we want. But it also has a direct impact on British firms.

Ask businessmen and women who spend much time on the Continent and they will tell you there is fall-out from the constant bickering with Europe. The abrasive tenor and tone of the Conservative attitude to Europe has meant some British firms have to overcome increasing suspicion when looking for business abroad. Business is competitive enough without our own Government putting new obstacles in our path.

Above all, what British business wants is immediate action to complete the single market and ensure existing rules are properly enforced. Tony Blair's pledge to open up the European market in gas and electricity, telecommunications and financial services is vitally important for British jobs. Our firms are well placed to take advantage of the opportunities a genuine single market would bring.

The Labour leader has made clear that this will be a priority for him in Europe. I believe that, because of the positive approach he intends to take to these negotiations, he has a much greater chance of making progress than any Conservative premier. Mr Major or his successor would be constantly looking over his shoulder to see if he could command a majority of his own backbenchers. A divided party could prevent him acting in the national interest.

It is for this reason that I believe this country needs a change of government. It is for this reason that I believe a Labour government under Tony Blair offers a brighter future for Britain. And it is why I believe all companies that trade in the global economy, or intend to in the future, will be better served by a Labour government after the next election.

The writer is president of GE Capital Europe Ltd, a subsidiary of the General Electric Company, USA.