With the EU referendum campaign entering its final phase, most of the arguments seem to be about the short-term implications for British politics and the wider economic consequences of leaving the union.
But one topic has been generally absent from discussions so far, even though it has featured prominently in the negotiations between the UK and the EU and in the relevant government White Paper: the objective of fostering competitiveness within a reformed EU.
The idea is that European companies should be able to beat international competitors by offering better products, at low prices. It also implies direct competition between companies within the European single market. More importantly, though, it requires governments to do all they can to support national companies.
That sounds like common sense, but the question is how you go about helping businesses thrive and whether you are compromising your responsibilities towards citizens to do it. Businesses like reduced regulation, weaker social protection for workers and tax breaks – but do ordinary people?
After negotiating a special place for the UK in the EU earlier this year, David Cameron claimed to have “secured a firm commitment” from the EU that it would push the competitiveness agenda harder.
And there are clear signs of strong dedication to these goals. There is a plan, for example, to make sure new laws meet the needs of small businesses wherever possible, something which grants business interests a degree of superior status that should upset any democratically minded person. There is also a significant drive to prepare the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – a wide reaching deal between the US and the EU that would lower social and environmental standards.
The UK and the EU both want to engender a “climate of entrepreneurship” in Europe because they claim that economic progress comes from the genius of entrepreneurs alone, who need to be left alone to thrive.
They both work on the assumption that regulation is intrinsically problematic. So-called red tape, they believe, stifles entrepreneurial activity. They also view taxation (especially if it is imposed on companies or their owners and shareholders) as undermining the competitive advantage of national economies in the global race.
But this narrow interpretation of competitiveness assumes, and at the same time stipulates as universal truth, that economic imperatives ought always to override other concerns. The needs of businesses override the need to protect the environment and the rights of employees. They also override the necessity to raise the revenue it takes to fund essential public services that improve living standards.
Dissent seems futile, because according to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, “everyone agrees on the need to further work on better regulation and on lessening the burdens on business”.
In other words, debates around social policies and the design of public services are only seen as reasonable as long as they don’t affect business interests and help to fill the gaps that markets alone cannot.
These views further the trajectory of the EU towards a predominantly economic model of integration. Hopes that the EU might evolve into a haven of social well-being appear less likely to be fulfilled than ever.
Two sides of the same coin
But the EU, for all its obsession with pleasing businesses, does continue to hold the UK back from some of its more radical attempts to prioritise business interests over employment rights. It has, for example, stopped the UK from repealing the working time directive or undermining parental leave.
Within the EU, the UK’s drive towards an ever stronger focus on competitiveness with less regulation (or protection of social standards) is at least slightly slowed. That’s why the outcome of the EU referendum is still important. Even if the two sides have a similar agenda, the UK would probably slide further without the restraints placed on it by EU regulation.
Moreover, other EU countries could put pressure on the EU to move away from its obsession with competition. Member states could push for more investment in sustainable industries, green energy and modern public transport – even if they don’t seem that interested at the moment.
This would be more likely if governments less enthralled by the idea of ever more competition came to power in countries with sufficient clout to alter the course of European integration. That’s an outcome arguably more likely than the UK itself becoming such a country – particularly if it were outside the EU.