Rocco’s thunder is little more than a damp squib

We dread the thought that our grandchildren could end up fighting against the grandchildren of our friends in Spain, Poland, Germany, France or Italy

A couple of days ago a friend gave me a copy of an article, published by the Daily Mail on 6th July (the date of Mrs. May’s Chequers meeting), entitled “Why the prophets of doom got it all wrong”. It was written by the multi-millionaire hotel owner, Sir Rocco Forte, who, according to the editor, provides a “blistering demolition” of the case for Britain remaining in the European Union.

The other day, lightning struck a huge oak tree close to our home and set the plant on fire. If the incipient smoke had not been spotted by a neighbour on the other side of the valley and the fire brigade had not acted quickly, the dry surrounding vegetation would have gone up in flames and threatened the house. My reaction to Sir Rocco’s “thunder” has been slower but I hope that, even if late in coming, explains why it is little more than a damp squib.

What Forte tells us is that, contrary to the dire predictions made by the “remain” campaign, since the June 2016 EU referendum Britain’s “economy has boomed, manufacturing is at a record high and unemployment at a record low”. I suggest that, if this is so, it is because, 2 years on and with no clue as to what Brexit yet means, we are fortunately still EU members enjoying the full benefits of access to the single market and customs union.  He conveniently ignores the UK government’s own economic forecasts that show that any form of Brexit or a “no deal” will lead to severe reductions in the UK’s GDP for many years to come.

Instead of admitting this reality, Forte tries to shift the goal posts. He points out that “in many EU countries, the burden of state levies can add an additional 45 to 55 percent to labour costs compared to about 12 percent in Britain.” He goes on to argue, without any evidence that this would be so, that “the same uncompetitive spirit would be forced on Britain if we had to remain in the customs union and single market.” As far as I know, the European Commission has never urged Britain to reverse the labour reforms that have improved its competitiveness. Rather, it is constantly urging its other members to deregulate their labour markets. To implicitly blame the EU for the inflexibility of labour markets in some of its member countries is akin to the “leave” campaign attributing the responsibility for most of Britain’s ills to the “bureaucrats in Brussels” rather than to the negligence of its own successive governments – the present one!

Sir Rocco then claims that Brexit won’t restrict the access of European workers to the UK’s labour market. He blandly argues with pride that “My family’s hotel chain hired staff from all over the world, including Europe, long before the EU was even created. We will continue to do so after Brexit, especially because so many young people from Europe want to come here to learn English.” Perhaps I am mistaken, but the Brexiteers’ immigration policies don’t look so flexible! You only have to ask NHS trusts how they will manage post-Brexit to fill thousands of doctor and nurse vacancies or talk to farmers about fruit and vegetable harvesting. Already, before Brexit has happened, it seems that the combination of Mrs. May’s “hostile environment”, the racist undertones of the “leave” campaign and its sequelae, and prolonged uncertainties as to the rights of European citizens to reside in the UK has already contributed to immigrant labour shortages. There are big gaps in NHS staffing and crops are left unharvested in the fields – and British universities are reporting sharp falls in the enrolment of foreign students such as those who might work part-time in Rocco’s classy hotels.

One of Forte’s more bizarre observations is that “we may have to pay tariffs on goods if Britain leaves the EU without an agreement. But, at worst, average customs duties will amount to just 3 to 4 percent. That’s a figure dwarfed by the 15 percent devaluation of sterling against the Euro since the referendum, a shift that has provided a massive boost for exports.”

To imply that a 15 percent drop in the value of sterling vis-à-vis the Euro is a good thing may go down well with the few leading exporters who have been able to produce more of the goods that consumers in other countries want to buy. It won’t hurt people who, like Forte, have business interests on both sides of the channel and so can easily balance out exchange rate shifts. However, for the UK citizens who make over 60 million leisure visits abroad each year, a cheapening pound is very bad news indeed. And the consequent rise in the price for imported fruits and vegetables is already reflected in food price inflation that hits the poor hardest.

The most indefensible of Rocco Forte’s misleading claims, however, is that “the whole purpose of the European Project is to create a federal entity through the abolition of national identities…. That’s why if Britain remains tied to Brussels, British sovereignty will continue to be dramatically eroded.” The most powerful motive for the creation and expansion of a European Union – and its continuing top priority – was to nurture lasting peace across a continent ravaged twice in our parents’ lifetime by the most destructive wars the world has ever seen. As Boris Johnson wrote just 4 years ago in his biography of Churchill, “It was his idea to bring these countries together so indissolubly together that they could never go to war again – and who can deny, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success?”

Though a few countries like to promote the idea of a Federal Europe, most member nations are quite as nationalistic as Britain and have no intention of following the full federalist path – and never will.

For me and my wife the most important argument for Britain staying in the EU is that this offers the surest guarantee of peace between 28 neighbouring countries that have a very long history of conflict. The single market and customs union can help to assure the prosperity that is important for peace, but the EU’s main contribution to conflict prevention is through promoting dialogue and trust amongst nations that, even though culturally and religiously diverse, share a commitment to a range of common values including to democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and the sustainable management of the region’s resources and environment.

As grandparents in our mid-seventies, who have enjoyed peace in Europe for most of our lives, our deepest wish is that our children and grandchildren should never be drawn into conflicts, whether within Europe or beyond. Britain’s current attempts to divorce itself from Europe seriously imperil lasting peace between our like-minded nations and will erode Europe’s – and its own – capacity to stand up to external threats.

We dread the idea that our adorable little grandchildren could find themselves fighting against the grandchildren of our friends in Spain, Poland, Germany, France or Italy! We just hope that many of our contemporaries who, unlike our parents, have shared the benefits of long-term peace will take a similar view if there is to be a People’s Vote.

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