The European Question: how the science community will help answer it

By 11.12.15

Andy Bagnall, Director of Campaigns, CBI speaks at the Science Council’s Public Affairs Network event to discuss European reform.

By Daniel Lee; Policy Officer, Institute of Physics

With a UK referendum on membership of the European Union imminent, members of the science policy community sat down to hear from Andy Bagnall, Director of Campaigns at the CBI, the UK’s largest business body with over 190,000 members.

He began by emphasising the significance of the referendum, and said that there was “no bigger issue facing business”. The CBI had launched its biggest ever membership consultation on the subject and 8 out of 10 businesses saw remaining in the EU as preferable, including 77% of small businesses.

Weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership

Bagnall spelt out that the advantages businesses saw in membership, including more customers, common rules, the size of the market, free movement of people and free trade, and he claimed that these benefits are also similar for science. He saw common advantages for business and science as they both “thrive in open markets”.

But he also made it clear that the CBI’s members did not see the EU as perfect. They wanted the reform agenda to continue beyond the negotiations leading into the referendum.

Some of the problems he listed included the need for the EU to be more outward-looking, by making more deals with emerging economies and the United States, and the need to ease regulations for small businesses to be more competitive. For science, he highlighted the failure to fully implement the European Research Area and the bureaucratic challenges of Horizon 2020. He made it clear that during the campaign, pro-EU organisations should not be blind to these problems, but also that the campaign must tell “positive stories”.

Lessons for science organisations

There were clear lessons for science organisations as membership organisations. Bagnall said that for its members “a lot of what the CBI does is about empowerment” and that “science organisations can do the same with their own”. For the CBI it was important to have a discussion with their members on the referendum, and that this is a “journey” all interested organisations should take. The CBI’s position is not uniform, but is based on the “centre of gravity” of its members. They make a concerted effort to engage with those members who disagree with their stance. But, quoting CBI Director-General John Cridland, he cautioned that although “you can be one step ahead of the members, woe betide if you are two steps ahead”.