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Richard Burden: The EU and the Midlands - multinational issues require multinational action

Northfield Labour MP Richard Burden recalls an exchange which showed how the European Union often offers support when you don't realise

Rui Vieira/PA Wire MP Richard Burden.
MP Richard Burden.

Of all the memories of conversations I’ve had about the EU, one of the most vivid was 16 years ago.

A long time, I know, but it was so significant that it has stayed etched on my memory ever since.

The Longbridge car plant in my constituency faced an existential threat when BMW announced they were pulling out. I was at a public meeting for Rover workers and others in a local community hall.

Emotions were understandably running high as people’s jobs and livelihoods were on the line. One worker who I knew well was very vocal about the fact that BMW had felt able to pull out of Longbridge so suddenly and without prior consultation.

They would not get away with something like this is Germany, he argued. Why couldn’t we have laws that could make sure there is more of a level playing field in Europe? And, he asked, what about pensions? How come people in other parts of Europe had a lot more security in retirement than they have here?

At the end of the meeting, he came to the front and said he was sorry if he had appeared hostile to me; that this was not his intention and that he knew I was doing my best to represent the area. He had just felt so strongly about the things he had raised.

Pic: Rui Vieira/PA Staff outside the old MG Rover factory in Longbridge in April 2005 at the time of its collapse
Staff outside the old MG Rover factory in Longbridge in April 2005 at the time of its collapse

I reassured him that no offence had been taken and that he had made some valid points. We shook hands and then, before he left, he turned around and said. “Oh yes, one more thing. On a different subject, when are we going to do something about Europe and stop ourselves being ordered about by Brussels?”

For a moment, I was lost for words. Hang on a minute, I said, I thought in the meeting you were calling for more intervention by Europe to protect wages, conditions and employees rights, not less?

He was genuinely surprised. “You’ve got a point, there”, he said. “I had never really thought about those things together.”

Memories of that conversation have come back to me a lot during this referendum campaign. It underlined to me how political institutions can feel so remote from people and their daily lives.

Whichever institution it is – the EU, the Government or even the council – the common feeling is that they don’t seem to listen, they seem to spend all their time arguing and they don’t seem to address everyday concerns with common sense. It’s a message all of us in political life would do well to heed, not least in the ways some different campaigns have handled the weeks leading up to the referendum.

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So we need to change the way we do our politics – locally, nationally and internationally – including in the way the EU operates. But that does not mean the issues that we need those institutions to deal with go away.

Protections at work are as important as ever, including the right for employees to be consulted over the future. And when the decisions that affect employees are often multinational, so too must those protections and solutions have a multinational character.

And that message goes beyond the issue of employee protection. The automotive industry is, by its nature, multinational. Jobs depend on stability and on trade, a large part of which is between countries of the EU. And the big challenges it faces cross national boundaries too – whether it be combatting climate change and poor air quality, or how to adapt to a future of autonomous vehicles and so called “driverless cars.

These issues cannot be tackled effectively on a country by country basis. Ok, they go broader than the EU too but the decisions Europe makes are critical to what happens at a global level. This is why most of UK automotive companies support remaining in the EU. It is why automotive unions do too.

These are also some of the reasons why I will vote to remain on June 23 too. But when I do so, I will also remember the other concerns of that Rover worker back in 2000. We need political institutions both nationally and multinationally. But we need them to listen too.

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