The Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce hosted a big debate on the European Union this afternoon (Friday 15 January) with a referendum looming on whether Britain leaves the EU.
The speakers were the Conservative MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Daniel Hannan and the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, who served as an MEP for 11 years.
They focused on the question: “Should the EU be more business friendly?”
Mr Hannan said that the EU was too friendly to big multinationals and not to the small and medium-sized business represented in the audience.
He cited a directive on herbal medicine from his first term as an MEP as an example of the EU favouring big business – in that case, the pharmaceutical sector.
Such laws were made by an unaccountable European Commission, he said, adding: “It’s only when you’ve been thrown out by your voters that you’re invited to become a member of the Commission.”
He said democracy wasn’t just an occasional vote but relied on the relationship between voters and those who govern.
He criticised the EU’s protectionist trade policies as harmful for Britain and the cost of our membership.
Mr Hannan, who lives in Brighton, thanked the 150 members of the audience for paying his salary.
And he invited them to stop paying his salary – by voting to leave the EU.
He pointed out that Britain had the world’s fifth largest economy and the world’s most widely spoken language.
“I think we might just about get by running our own affairs in our own interests,” he said.
Caroline Lucas said that she loved “listening to Dan” but added that he was wrong.
She said that his criticisms of lobbying in Brussels were equally valid in Westminster.
“But lobbying is so last century,” she said, adding that energy companies, for example, seconded staff to government departments and wrote the policies and laws that affect us all.
Monty Python-style, she asked: “What has the EU ever done for us?”
And she answered by citing, among other things, a whopping export market, financially beneficial common standards and improved consumer rights and workers’ rights.
She added that Britain also cleaner water, cleaner air and cleaner fuel as a result of being part of the EU.
Ms Lucas also touched on concerns about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), saying that the British government favoured it.
She accepted that the EU needed reform, adding that so did the UK government – and the United Nations.
And she wasn’t advocating leaving the UK or the UN but staying in and pushing for reform and putting people at its heart.
The audience – despite some challenging questions – favoured staying in the EU, with a few still to make up their minds.