Is Norwich MP right to warn of EU jobs risk?

MP Simon Wright MP Simon Wright

Thursday, January 23, 2014
1:30 PM

In Europe but not run by Europe - that was once the stock phrase summing up a British approach to EU relations, though the in-out sentiment has often been stronger than that.

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Unilever chief executive Paul PolmanUnilever chief executive Paul Polman

Relations may have become more amenable under New Labour, but with the promise of an in-out referendum looming on the post 2015 general election horizon the issue will not go away.

Among Conservatives, it is fears of ‘benefits’ tourism which seems to loom large in their thinking currently and a desire to see the UK reposition its relationship.

In his own speech on the issue last year David Cameron positioned Britain’s relationship as: “A real choice between leaving or being part of a new settlement in which Britain shapes and respects the rules of the single market but is protected by fair safeguards, and free of the spurious regulation which damages Europe’s competitiveness.”

• You can read David Cameron’s full 2013 speech here

Businesses by and large take a pragrmatic approach - last November CBI director general John Cridland said that EU membership was worth £3,000 a year to every household in Britain or £62bn to £78bn to the UK.

However, despite those perceived benefits there are elements which the business group would like to see changed, not least a permanent opt-out from the working time directive.

Small businesses too complain of the burden of EU legislation - with the Federation of Small Businesses arguing last year that the burden of EU red tape falls most heavily on smaller firms.

Leading CEOs meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos also fear that EU integration could get harder following May’s European Elections if voters shift to the right - making reform even harder.

And to add some spice to the debate Paul Polman, the Dutch chief executive of Unilever has said the UK would be better staying inside the EU rather than “kicking against the table”, adding that the company could review its UK investment if Britain left.

But he is also clear that “Europe needs to raise its game”.

Why does that matter?

Because Unilever owns Colmans Mustard and with it its Norwich production operation, making it a significant employer locally.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, pro-European Norwich South Lib Dem MP Simon Wright and MEP counterpart Andrew Duff have seized on this - warning that thousands of jobs could be put at risk if Mr Polman did decide the firm should pull out.

Mr Wright notes that Unilever employs around 7,000 staff across Britain, including at its dry mix operation in Norwich, so a lot could be at stake.

“Our membership of the European Union is vital for jobs in Norwich and across the country. Unilever are an important employer in our city, and Colmans is an iconic brand for Norwich,” he said. “It would be disastrous if this were to be jeopardised by Eurosceptics dragging Britain out of the EU. Unilever’s comments are further evidence that our future prosperity is best served through our continued membership of the European Union.”

Everyone will have a view on whether he is right or not (and feel free to share them either by commenting or via @ShaunLowthorpe or @EDPBusiness).

A real risk? Or the starting gun to May’s European poll?

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