Committee of Employment and Social affairs
Brussels, the Social Partners and UK Businesses
Having been a Small Business Owner and a farmer for most of my working life, I brought a number of insights with me to the Parliament when I became an MEP in February 2012. Becoming an MEP has also given me some perspectives on the policy process in Brussels and the European Institutions, much of which was completely new to me.
A few things stand out. The European Single Market really is vital to Small Businesses in the UK, with more than 80% of UK SMEs which export at all, doing so within the EU.
Second, the UK has a huge influence in the decision making process here in Brussels - when our Politicians are willing to play the game. This is partially due to our size, the effectiveness of our civil servants, and our generally good track record in implementing policy at home.
Third and most importantly, in some areas there has been a shift in power, decision making, and democratic oversight... but not where the euro-sceptics think...
For those of us who take the time to understand the structures in the EU, and where the real decision making takes place, the clearest "problem" with Europe is the way in which the social partners conduct their agreements.
Few in the UK media or political establishment are aware of their existence let alone their role, but the social partners, representatives of Europe's Big Business Interests on one side, and powerful Trade Unions on the other, have been granted significant decision making power to agree legally binding industry agreements affecting all actors within their respective sectors.
The discussions take place behind closed doors, and the group of representatives allowed to participate is a closed club, with new entrants granted only on the agreement of those already involved.
As a result Britain's, and indeed Europe's SMEs are largely unrepresented in these talks. The agreements reached are often designed to favour the interests of the big players, and present significant administrative burdens and even barriers to entry for the SMEs and micro-enterprises in the same sector.
While this system was initially established in the early days of the (then) European Community to create a "social dialogue", treaty changes and shifting power bases have resulted in a powerful yet wholly undemocratic regime which is less of a social dialogue and more a social secret.
I want to see a change here, but unlike UKIP or some of our coalition colleagues, I want a reform of the system. Social dialogue is good and very important, but it should be genuine dialogue. I want to see the social partners negotiations opened up to include a broader cross section of interests from industry, and in particular proper representation of SMEs and micro-enterprises. I want to see these negotiations publicised, and I want to see them properly scrutinised and subject to approval by National Parliaments and the European Institutions.
If we can get consensus on the need for reform, we can continue to protect our workers rights whilst building a better set of structures, boosting competitiveness and adding more value to UK SMEs which already benefit hugely from EU membership.