First let’s clear up this myth about red tape.
When I hear politicians rage about European red tape, I wonder whether any of them have actually run a business.
I even believed the myths myself — until I started a business.
When I co-founded Firefly Tonics, a health drinks company, the only interactions we had with Europe were, frankly, helpful… European labeling rules meant we could sell right across Europe and European trademarks meant you completed one form and it protected you everywhere.
When I invested in GoCardless, we were excited about the harmonisation of banking regulations across Europe, because it meant we could expand rapidly across the continent, and challenge the entrenched, over-priced incumbents.
So these rules help small businesses like mine break into new markets. The standards save us a tonne of time.
That doesn’t mean I’m not instinctively sceptical of centralised Brussels decision-making. Like many entrepreneurs, I don’t flow easily with the unaccountability, the wasteful Common Agricultural Policy and the farce of upping sticks to Strasbourg once a month to appease the French.
I worry particularly that big corporations – including UK PLCs – spend increasing time in Brussels lobbying. There’s a danger that Brussels is becoming more like Washington DC: a giant federal government protecting big established corporates from competition.
But so far, mostly, the EU is not the problem. The EU has shown that it can stand up to corporate giants like Google and Microsoft much better than our own government. They’ve stood up to big TelCo’s, prevented giant mergers (that our government wanted to wave through) and forced down tariffs. Let’s hope they keep at it.
Then there’s a broader question. There are big problems in Europe. Economic catastrophe in Greece. Appalling youth unemployment in France, Spain and Italy. Unaffordable welfare time-bombs as well as the massive movement of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe from Syria and North Africa.
Are we best to shut ourselves off?
Two years ago Donald Trump said that the solution to the Ebola crisis was to stop all American flights to West Africa. Try to remember the rising panic and tabloid headlines shrieking “close the borders”. But just imagine where we’d be today if the rest of the world had simply shut off West Africa. We were bigger than that. The international community risked lives to help solve the crisis – making us all safer.
It’s a big leap from Ebola to Europe, but the message is the same. We have a track record of being an involved nation. We sit on the world’s leading governmental bodies, from NATO to the G7 to the UN.
We do that because as one of the richest nations in the world we feel our responsibilities keenly. But let’s not forget it is also in our interest. In the EU, we play our part, we contribute money and expertise – and we nudge it in the direction we want to go. By helping to solve problems and increase prosperity, ultimately we help ourselves.
So there’s a moral case for not shutting ourselves off. But there’s also a massive selfish case for it.
It’s the same with immigration.
Trump stirs up US voters with talk of Mexico sending its “drug dealers” and “rapists”. But in Europe, the dirty secret is that the best people are coming to the UK. Where are the brightest young Italians, Germans, French, Spaniards and Swedes?
They’re in Queens Park and Battersea and Kentish Town. They’re working for Shoreditch start-ups and Soho advertising agencies and, yes, Canary Wharf banks. They’re studying at Imperial or LSE or St Martin’s. They’re choosing to spend the best years of their lives here, and making London the most buzzing, international, thriving city in the world.
As a start-up investor, I meet smart, ambitious European entrepreneurs every day, and one of their biggest decisions is where to base their company.
They want a business-friendly climate, but most of all they want access to the best talent – the best computer scientists, the best designers, the best business brains. They weigh up San Francisco – but that means months of visa applications. So they choose London. London was just ranked by Ernst and Young as the second best place in the world, after Silicon Valley, to start a business. Every other city in the world would kill to have London’s pulling-power right now.
Why would we shut that off?
In the last couple of years I’ve invested in Gousto – run by a German, based in West London; Toucanbox – founded by a French lady, in Putney; Lyst, founded by a half-Spanish Brit and a Slovenian, in Hoxton; Peoplegraph, founded by a Brit and a Romanian, in Bristol.
They’re here because they can find the skills they need here, from a pool of nationalities. Just look at the top teams of the UK’s leading startups right now: you’ll find Italian CTOs, Danish sales directors, Bulgarian data scientists, Swedish product managers, German operations experts. And, of course, the best British talent too.
That’s why London has leapt over other European cities since the mid-1990s.
Today it is the undisputed leader in venture capital raised in Europe – and now other British cities – Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh – are building significant tech communities too. We’re building the next generation of great global pioneering companies right here on British soil.
Yet right now London’s tech founders and entrepreneurs are sending panicky emails asking what they should do if Brexit wins the day. They want to know should they flee to Berlin, to Barcelona, to Dublin or anywhere that is safely in Europe.
When you’re a small company that employs 40 people and only 12 are British, staying in a closed-off Britain could threaten your very existence.
It’s not so difficult to move a business somewhere else. These guys know, because many have already done it.
Quitting Europe now wouldn’t just cause untold damage – it would be deeply out of character. We’ve never been small-minded. Our horizons have always been bigger. As John Donne wrote 400 years ago:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
If we turn our back on Europe and vote Leave on 23rd June, I’m afraid the bells will toll for us.