The success story that is Europe

The more people know about the EU, the more they are in favour of it, argues Giles Radice
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The Independent Online
Today the European Movement launches Europe 97, a campaign to highlight the advantages of British membership of the European Union (EU). British membership may be the official policy of the three main parties. But that does not deter a sustained barrage of often inaccurate criticism by politicians and much of the media, nor does it encourage the provision of accurate information about its benefits. Our campaign aims to help fill the gap.

Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that the majority of the British people are anxious to find out more about the European Union and what it means for them. Mori research for the European Movement reveals that only 14 per cent describe themselves as having "a good knowledge" of the EU, while only 7 per cent know about the single market. Significantly, those with good knowledge of the EU favour staying in by a margin of three to one. The majority of those with poor knowledge back leaving. In other words, the more people know about the European Union, the more they support Britain being part of it.

Europe 97 will explain why nine out of 10 business people think we should stay in the EU. The key point is that Europe is now where Britain sells its products. In 1995, 58 per cent of our exported goods went to the EU. We sell more to Germany than to the US, more to France and Belgium than to the whole of Asia, more to the Netherlands than to China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the other Asian "tigers" put together. And it is mainly because of British membership of the EU that so many big foreign companies have invested in the UK. As Ian Gibson, chief executive of Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK), puts it: "Europe is our home market and the foundation of our business."

When business prospers, so do British living standards. As the TUC has pointed out, millions of jobs now depend on the sales of British and British- based foreign firms in the single European market. Many of these would be at risk if Britain left the EU. Niall Fitzgerald, chairman of Unilever, has warned: "Careless talk about withdrawal costs jobs." Indeed, one of the most significant developments of the past few months is the concern about the consequences of British isolation in Europe expressed by leaders of major companies, including BP, British Aerospace, BAT, Glaxo, Guinness, Northern Foods, Shell Transport and Trading, Unilever and Vauxhall, while big foreign investors, such as Rover, Siemens and Toyota, have warned about the dangers of Britain being permanently outside a strong European currency.

The benefits are not only economic. It is obvious, for example, that pollution does not recognise national frontiers. So the EU has introduced a set of common standards, from which we in Britain gain. Ten years ago half of British bathing beaches failed to meet EU standards. Today nine out of 10 fly the "blue flag" to show that they meet them.

Europe 97 will be reminding people that the EU, by healing the bitter conflict between France and Germany, has helped to keep peace in Western Europe for half a century, the longest period of peace for 300 years. War memorials in our cities, towns and villages bear witness to the cost to Britain of the European civil wars of the first part of this century.

The political case can be put another way. As part of the EU, the world's largest trading bloc, Britain has greater clout. For example, the 1993 agreement to free up world trade, in which the EU negotiated as one bloc, is saving every British household pounds 500 over 10 years.

With membership of the EU, the British are becoming de facto citizens of Europe. In the single market, consumers increasingly buy Continental goods, and jobs depend on success on the Continent. We travel, take holidays, study (last year, 26,825 students studied on the Continent as part of the Erasmus scheme), increasingly work and even live ( as nearly 1 million people do) on the mainland. Europe 97 will be reminding people that, despite the persuasive anti-European rhetoric, Europe is becoming a British space.

Giles Radice is Labour MP for North Durham and chairman of the European Movement.