The British will vote on 23 June whether to stay in the EU or not

The British will vote on 23 June whether to stay in the EU or not

The British will vote on 23 June whether to stay in the EU or not. By early March, opinion polls showed voters split about 50/50, with about a third still unsure. So far, neither side has been straightforward about the effects of leaving (known as a "Brexit") or staying. Here's how Mike Flanagan sees Brexit supporters' arguments affecting Britain's apparel industry.

1. "Britain's trade relations with the world would be better outside the EU." The central question for apparel sourcing – but where both sides make unjustifiable assertions.

  • With the EU: If Britain leaves, there'll certainly be some agreement on mutual trade. But Brexit supporters insisting there'll be a deal ignore the difference between today's completely uncontrolled trade within the EU and the bureaucracy that slowed British trade with the continent 20 years ago. Port merchandise inspections, consignments rejected for documentation problems, cash deposits needed before goods got released: not just on EU imports, but on garments trucked from North Africa or Turkey, and on Asian clothes transhipped via Antwerp or Rotterdam. Today, there'd be similar red tape when despatching or receiving clothes ordered via e-commerce.
  • It's no coincidence that Britain's fast fashion and apparel e-commerce booms came after those EU border controls got scrapped. There's a real risk Brexit will drag our industry back to a commercial stone age.
  • With other countries: In March 2014, the former EU Commissioner for global trade, Peter Mandelson, was contemptuous when told that a Brexit would ease access to fast-growing markets like India or China for British exporters, who often think the EU has been slow in signing deals with developing markets. "India would laugh in our faces", he said, if Britain tried to negotiate a trade agreement by itself. "They would walk away and leave us whistling in the wind."
  • India had had a free trade agreement with Chile for a decade as well as with Singapore, Korea and Japan – though it has less trade with them than with the UK.
  • Was Mandelson lying? Well, India gave Chile free access in 2005 on just 178 of the 11,400 products listed in its customs codes - including no apparel at all. There's been no progress on extending it since.
  • Since 2007, India has been rejecting EU calls for a trade deal allowing free access for British cars, insurance companies and retailers, and guarding against abuse of European pharmaceutical patents. It's certainly no likelier to concede that in return for access just to the UK - India's biggest EU customer, but accounting for just 3% of India's exports.
  • The EU does take longer than some other countries to agree a free trade deal with most developing countries because it always pushes for better access for British and European businesses than the potential partner first offers.
  • As for a UK-US agreement: all the likely contenders in the US Presidential election oppose any new trade agreements. And were there ever a deal, it'd involve the nightmare US Customs tyranny our transatlantic peers have to live with.
  • It's hard to decide who to mistrust more on this: Mandelson or Brexit advocates. The truth is, neither can possibly judge what deals Britain will be able to negotiate alone. All we can predict for certain is that a Brexit means more bureaucracy and delay than our industry has today.

2. "The EU destroyed British industry." Partly true: the collapse of Britain's manufacturing industries did start to accelerate as Britain joined the EU in 1972. Many attribute this at least as much to underinvestment and poor management over the previous 50 years as to European competition, and virtually all that "lost" trade has moved on since to Asia or the Middle East. Today, the real obstacles to reinvigorating British garment and textile making are that it's almost impossible to find staff, and that successive British governments won't spend taxpayers' money subsidising an industry they can't see as viable. Whether the EU destroyed the textile industry or not, leaving won't help its rebirth.

3. "The EU means Britain can't control immigration from the EU." Entirely true – and EU rules mean Britain's tax subsidies for low-paid workers must be extended to EU immigrants. Ironically, most British garment makers and sellers see that as support for EU membership: much manufacturing in Southern Britain needs tax-subsidised EU immigrants – as do many apparel retailers and brands. Leaving the EU would meet many British fears about rapid immigration – but they're not fears many garment makers or brands share.

4. "The EU has created thousands of pointless new rules." Probably. But would leaving the EU help the garment industry? Many EU initiatives, like the 849 pages of the EU's massively complex REACH rules on products' chemical composition, are an undoubted nuisance - but less nuisance than having 849 different sets of pages British business hasn't been consulted over in every country where manufacturers sell, or where retailers have a branch. As far as the mechanics of garment making and retailing are concerned, separate regulations in Britain would be far worse than the current position.

5. "EU rules undermine business." Possibly true. Many believe the EU devised rules in the 1980s and 1990s specifically devised to counter the free-market reforms Britain adopted under Thatcher. Britain may very well be better off without many of them.

  • But the rules that annoy most British businesses today were devised by British governments with no nudging from Europe at all. You may not like Britain's inflation-busting minimum wage hikes, complicated rules about local taxation on retail premises and the difficulties businesses have with transport infrastructure and getting building permissions. Blame the government, not the EU.

There are lots of other reasons many people in Britain (often including me) believe life would be better without the EU. But I can't imagine a credible scenario in which British garment makers, retailers or brands would be better off outside.

British businesses' biggest problem with the EU has been "gold-plating": Britain's dismal history of re-writing EU proposals to impose even greater costs on business than the rest of the EU has to deal with. Leaving the EU won't help that: but tighter industry advocacy will.

Our industry needs to learn how to put its case across to politicians better than at present. Leaving the EU is at best a complete distraction.