Most of the hype and headlines on the UK’s membership of the EU centres around national impact, generated largely by those based in our traditional power centre of London and the South East. But the EU has come through for the regions where the Government has not, says Paul Richardson. What has the EU ever done for us? More than you realise, he argues.
A failure to connect
Despite weeks of campaigning and countless articles and debates, the Leave and Remain campaigns have consistently failed to connect with voters at a local or regional level. Yet, the EU has been one of the most active and effective organisations in overcoming regional inequality, with Northern Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, the Tees Valley, and the Scottish Highlands currently receiving the largest amount of EU funding per person in the UK. In this blog post, I suggest that membership of the EU is as issue of huge regional importance. The North West – a large and populous region, with both huge opportunities and challenges – is a strong case in point.
A serious business
Access to the Single Market of 500 million people is built around four freedoms – freedom of goods, services, capital, and labour – and is a major reason behind the success of some of the North West’s most important companies and manufacturers. Two hundred business leaders signed an open letter in The Times this February calling for us to stay in the EU, and included the bosses of Airbus UK; BAE Systems; BASF UK, and Manchester Airports Group, all of which have bases in the North West.
Kellogg’s UK, whose headquarters are in Manchester, also issued a statement in favour of remain, while Chairman of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Liverpool-based shipping company Bibby Line Paul Drechsler stated that he had seen “nothing that shows if we leave Europe, it will be better for economic growth.”
Just over half (52%) of the North West’s manufactured goods exports currently go to the EU, and in Lancashire and Cheshire there is the largest concentration of advanced manufacturing and chemicals production in the UK. The EU sets the rules and standards for imports to the Single Market and with the region’s strong presence in the chemical industry this has real implications for the North West if we leave. Having no input on how EU regulations govern our industry would erode, rather than enhance Britain’s sovereignty.
Similarly, in the case of Brexit, for us to retain full access to the Single Market, the EU would set the terms of any future agreement. Switzerland and Norway, both outside the EU, have had to accept free movement of people in order to gain access to this market, and both countries have proportionately more EU migrants than Britain. Despite the obsession of Brexiters with immigration, they have offered no plausible model for which Britain would be able to retain access to the Single Market and restrict freedom of movement within this economic space.
The EU has also helped to develop the regions of Britain most in need of new industries and job creation. These have had immense financial and social benefits for the North West, which has endured decades of neglect from the UK Treasury.
Between 2007 and 2013 the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA), which managed the EU’s European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for the North West, was allocated £755.5 million. During this period the NWDA invested in the region’s public transport network, including a £10.8 million contribution for a second tramline in Manchester and £7.9 million for redeveloping Victoria station.
The fund was also used to set up enterprise centres, technology centres, job training, broadband, environmental and renewable energy projects, as well as improved housing. In addition, significant sums were spent on arts and culture (including £3.8 million for the National Football museum, £6.8 million for Media City), healthcare (£4.7 million for the Royal Eye Hospital), universities (£23 million for the National Graphene Centre), and tourism (£14.7 million for Blackpool).
The NWDA was abolished in 2012 but EU money continues to flow to the North West through the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF), which combines four EU funds, including the ERDF and the European Social Fund. For 2014-20, Greater Manchester was allocated €413.8 million, Liverpool City Region €220.9 million, Lancashire €265.2 million, Cumbria €91 million, and Cheshire and Warrington €141.6 million.
This is in stark contrast to the North West’s treatment from central government. Liverpool, Knowsley, and Manchester are amongst the English councils with the most severe cuts to their council budgets in the last five years, while in the South East, Wokingham, Surrey, and Windsor and Maidenhead all saw the lowest. These are the three least deprived areas in the country and happen to overlap with the constituencies of the Government ministers Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Chris Grayling, Philip Hammond and Michael Gove.
The EU’s redevelopment fund is able to act above party politics, and I would argue that it has done a better job than the Government to ensure that resources and investment are targeted at the regions that need it most. If the UK economy weakens, it also brings with it the security that EU money will continue to flow to these regions, and even be enhanced.
A North West Fund has also been financed by the ERDF and the European Investment Bank. This investment fund of £155m was established to provide debt and equity funding to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the North West.
Across the North of England, the EU’s Enterprise Europe network has also assisted innovative entrepreneurs, SMEs, universities, and research and development centres secure commercial and technology opportunities to grow their business in Europe and beyond. Many workers in the North West have also benefitted from training courses subsidised by the Community Learning Grants programme of the EU’s European Social Fund.
The regional impact of the EU also goes beyond business and enterprise. For example, the police forces of Greater Manchester, Cumbria, Lancashire, and Merseyside have all used the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), valid throughout all member states of the EU, to pursue dangerous criminals. It has also been used by other police forces in the EU to quickly arrest and extradite criminals who have fled to our region.
In Higher Education, the North West is home to some of the UK’s best universities. These have all benefitted greatly from EU funding, and from partnerships with other EU universities. It has proved easy to attract some of the most talented lecturers, researchers, and students from across the EU, and this has helped make our universities world leading research centres.
Between 2007 and 2013, almost 8,000 students and teachers in the North West participated in the EU’s ERASMUS exchange programme. Some years ago I was an ERASMUS student in Sweden, which gave me invaluable insights into a different culture and country. The scheme has enriched the base of foreign languages across the UK, helping to forge lifelong cultural contacts and future business links between our regions and the rest of Europe.
Lastly, it’s largely thanks to the EU that business travellers and holidaymakers can now enjoy cheap flights across Europe, while mobile phone roaming charges have been capped, and will soon be abolished. Access to public healthcare in EU member states is also usually free, and this has helped Manchester airport expand to become the UK’s third busiest, with the majority of its 23 million passengers flying to and from the EU.
While the EU’s work in the North West might not be well known, I believe the EU has consistently been a driving force behind investments and innovations that have regenerated and revitalised our region. This has been at times when it has been too often overlooked by Westminster.
Although our membership of the EU may have some costs, it has empowered some of our most deprived regions. If we leave, it might be too late before we realise just how much the EU has done for us.
- Thanks to Chris Davies, MEP for the North West (1999-2014) for comments on an earlier version of this piece.
- The University of Birmingham is home to the Graduate Centre for Europe and hosts an annual conference that addresses aspects of regional integration and identity in Europe.