The case for Britain’s membership of the EU has, to date, focused primarily on the benefit to businesses. Business groups such as the CBI and the EEF have been the foremost advocates of Britain’s role in the EU and the most trenchant critics of a ‘Brexit’ referendum. The Labour Party has repeatedly cited its pro-EU position as evidence of its pro-business credentials. Labour’s criticism of the proposed referendum has repeatedly attacked the uncertainty that it creates for business.

These are fair arguments, and business is entitled to have a voice in the debate.  Businesses employ plenty of people and carry out a number of critical services, so what’s good for business is often good for the country as a whole.

But there are other reasons to support EU membership, including the vital rights that UK workers enjoy as a result of EU policies. The recent IPA paper ‘Common Rights in a single market’ highlights how the right to paid holiday, a lunch break, a maximum working week of 48 hours, paid maternity leave, freedom from discrimination and fair treatment for agency workers all originated at EU level.

Many of these rights are quite unpopular with business lobby groups – even those broadly supportive of EU membership. Polling of CBI members in 2013 found that 71 per cent of respondents said that membership of the EU had a positive aspect on their business, while just 13 per cent said negative. CBI members also supported access to the single market by a margin of 76 per cent to just one per cent against, and common EU product standards by a margin of 52 per cent to 16 per cent.

However, 49 per cent felt that common employment rights across the EU were a negative for their business, against 22 per cent who felt they were positive.

It is important for anyone interested in either Britain’s membership of the European Union or rights for workers to acknowledge this contradiction in the business position – otherwise vital rights will go undefended while a potentially powerful weapon the pro-European arsenal will go undeployed. This is the focus of a new report by the High Pay Centre and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, A Force for Fairness,  based on polling carried out by ICM. The report highlights why the social case for EU membership must be a key part of the debate on Europe.

Firstly, people will be inherently suspicious of a campaign dominated by business leaders. It creates the risk of a perception that the benefits of EU membership are captured solely by big business and the super –rich.

Secondly, business leaders are likely to concentrate on the aspects of EU membership that they like best – chiefly, access to the biggest single market in the world – and neglect other aspects that they would rather do without, such as the common standards on workers’ rights agreed with EU partners, including the right to paid holiday, paid maternity leave and maximum working week of 48 hours.

There is a danger that this is already happening.  Our polling found that only 25% of respondents realised that key rights at work such as paid holiday and maternity leave are guaranteed by the European Union. 51% wrongly assumed they were introduced by the UK Government.

Obviously, these rights are incredibly popular. And there is a reason why they need to apply at EU level. Outside the EU, countries are incentivised to compete with our European neighbours to attract businesses and investment by cutting rights, wages or environmental protections in a race to the bottom. Within Europe, by contrast, we can agree common standards that ensure fair and dignified working conditions for everyone.  The position of Eurosceptic lobby groups underline this point - the Fresh Start group of Eurosceptic  MPs have attacked the ‘Working Time Directive’ while Business for Britain demand the removal of EU ‘social and employment’ regulations, effectively threatening workers’ rights to paid holiday and a lunch break. 

If pro-Europeans are to win the argument, this social aspect of EU membership needs to be more widely understood. The public already accepts the logic. The High Pay Centre polling found that respondents preferred common standards to competition with other EU countries by a wide margin


The European Union (EU) should set limits on bankers' bonuses and protect certain rights for workers, in order to guarantee fair pay and working conditions for all workers across the EU and ensure that all companies operating in the EU play by the same rules


Individual countries should not have to follow limits on bankers' bonuses and rights for workers set by the European Union (EU) so that they have more control over their economic policies and are free to compete with other EU countries.


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Concern about inequality and the power of big business and the super-rich is rising across the developed world. These trends are largely driven by global factors common to most industrialised countries including the increased mobility of capital, technological change and the weakening of organised labour.

Therefore, it is no surprise that there is considerable support for co-ordinated, European-wide action to deliver a fairer and more secure settlement for ordinary people. This needs to be a key aim of Britain’s European policy and a key argument for our ongoing EU membership.

Luke Hildyard is Deputy Director of the High Pay Centre, an independent think-tank researching top pay and income distribution. For more information, visit the High Pay Centre website or follow them on twitter (@HighPayCentre)