Leaving EU would cause ‘series of disasters’ for Cambridge, says Labour campaign leader Alan Johnson

The man charged with leading Labour’s campaign to keep Britain in the European Union (EU) says it would be “a disaster” for Cambridge should ‘Brexit’ come to pass.

Labour MP and former cabinet minister Alan Johnson warned about the impact for businesses, workers and residents during a visit to Cambridge yesterday, where he heard fears from one city firm that would take their business to the US if Britain leaves the EU.

David Williams, chief executive of drugs research and development company Discuva, said leaving the EU would have a huge impact on his ability to recruit staff with the right skills.

City MP Daniel Zeichner also highlighted how effective the EU had been at keeping the peace in Europe – of particular significance to a man with an Austrian father and grandfather that fought in the First World War.

Politics correspondent JON VALE spoke to all three yesterday for an in-depth exclusive interview about the pending referendum.

Can I ask why you have chosen to come to Cambridge today, because frankly the argument has already been won, given it’s such a pro-Europe city

Alan Johnson: “I’m going everywhere. Once the local, mayoral, Scottish Parliamentary, and police and crime commissioner elections are over on May 5 you’ll get sick of the sight of me, because I’m going around the country on a bus.

“I don’t think you can be complacent. Daniel has done some wonderful work here along with Richard [Howitt, Labour MEP] to get people motivated and get the campaign up and running, and I would be very depressed if somewhere like Cambridge didn’t realise the importance of being in the European Union. But we’ve got to get them out on the day, on 23rd June.

“This is very fascinating to me. Leaving aside the European debate, it’s fascinating to come to a company that’s on the front line of trying to find the next generation of antibiotics. This is one of the biggest problems the country faces. A national pandemic is the only thing higher on people’s ‘worry list’ than the fact antibiotics, bugs are getting resistant to them. This is cutting edge work.

“This gives me an experience to take elsewhere, to people and places who don’t realise how importance it is to their health, to the future of this very important industry we’ve got here. We attract like a magnet scientific skills, we attract them from other countries. If we left the European Union, you’d have a whole series of disasters.

“David said he’d have to move the company to America, because you just couldn’t have that level of expertise and that level of interaction between scientists coming from different countries. We can’t provide all those scientific skills ourselves. It’s another good example, alongside what would happen to our manufacturing industry, what would happen to our worker protection, the voice of the nation and our strength in the world, security – here’s another bit of it which is very important for me to learn about.”

Cambridge is a very international city, a very cosmopolitan city, so why should you restrict that freedom of people and ability to attract skills just to the EU?

Alan Johnson: “It’s a different argument, but a very important argument, because what the Government are doing is stopping very talented people coming from outside the European Union on their vainglorious quest to say they’re going to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Tens of thousands was the kind of migration you might have had back in the 60s and 70s, before this huge global shift, let’s call it globalisation.

“The world has changed – you can’t stop the world and step off of it. We introduced a points-based system, they’ve introduced a cap. We said ‘don’t introduce a cap, because it’s totally nefarious’. You either put the cap too high to be meaningful, or if it’s too low you’ll stop great talents coming in. But they’ve put the cap on, and they’re suffering from it. No doubt, this sector suffers from not being able to bring over talent from America and Australia and India and Pakistan and wherever.

“So that’s a separate problem. You don’t solve one by leaving the European Union and magnifying that problem a hundred times.”

David Williams: “For us it’s a real no brainer. The staff issues mentioned are critically important. We’ve got ten nationalities amongst 26 people at Discuva, mainly from Europe. It’s been very easy to hire these staff, with skills you just cannot get in the UK at this current time. We have access to 500 million people with some of the best skills in the world.

“Then there’s also the European Medicines Agency. We put a lot of work in to make sure that was in London, we play a major part in it and we use that to get our drugs across Europe, into patients, and also to get drugs from Europe into patients in the UK – it’s a two-way thing. The UK itself only has three per cent of the global market for drugs. For us to be on our own is absolute insanity.

“I’ll also mention the patent system. We’ve been working on harmonising the European patent system, and we have the court that decides on chemicals and pharmaceutical patents coming to be based in London next year, which makes it even easier for us. To get out of that after spending 20 years to make sure we’ve got it would be suicide for the drugs industry.”

David makes the point about the ‘tech business’ side of things, there’s no doubt about what Cambridge University thinks, but what are the arguments you’d make to ‘the man in Cherry Hinton’, to the more ‘ordinary’ residents of Cambridge?

Alan Johnson: “It’s about our prosperity – our employment prospects now and in the future absolutely depend on us staying in the European Union. We’re part of the biggest commercial market in the world; bigger than China, bigger than the US. Any goods going into this huge market of 520 million people carry no tariffs.

“Prior to the single market, if you exported ceramics, 37 per cent tariff. Export cars, 40 per cent tariff. Export coats, it was 25 per cent. Socks, for some reason, were 18 per cent. So everything that British companies were making and wanted to export, they carried a tariff which meant they were more expensive.

“The vision of this market – which Britain was at the lead of establishing – gives us a huge advantage. In this area, to your man in Cherry Hinton, 54 per cent of exports from the East of England go to the European Union. You put tariffs on those, you can see what happens.

“There’s also the non-tariff barriers. If you’re exporting a vacuum cleaner, there’s one set of standards that’s decided by the EU, and that applies to 27 other countries. You don’t have a different set of standards for every country you’re selling into. So I think people hear single market and they don’t really understand why it’s such a huge advantage. It has to be explained.

“If this guy is in work, by the way, I’d explain to him that your rights at work are protected and underpinned. This market has rules – it’s not a race to the bottom, it’s not ‘we can compete on the basis of exploiting our workforce’. Basic civilised minimum standards – right to paid holidays, the right to a day off a week, the right to rest time, the right for part timers to be paid the same hourly rate as full timers, people on temporary contracts to be paid as people who are permanent staff. The ‘Leave’ side just call that bureaucracy and red tape – they don’t define it. It’s disgraceful – they just lie. The working time directive is a piece of health and safety legislation that is Europe-wide.

“That social dimension of Europe is very important. If your man in Cherry Hinton is a consumer, there’s rights for consumers as well. If you’re selling products, if you’re a British company and you’re selling suits to someone in Italy, the person who buys it, wherever they are, they have the same rights. If it doesn’t fit, you have 14 days to take it back. All of that, backed by European Union law.

“It’s a market which also looks to protect the environment, which no country can do on their own and is increasingly part of the dangers of the modern world. Back in ’75 we voted nearly 70 per cent to stay in the European Union, and I think it’s much more important now. It was a European Union of nine countries, there was no Channel Tunnel, there wasn’t a World Trade Organisation. Now, we’re in a more interdependent world with 28 countries in this huge single market we’d be turning our backs on. It’s a better deal now than it was back in ’75.

David Williams: “The other thing is a lot of what we do here, as a company based in Cambridge, we’re using people who supply our food, our rolls at lunchtime, our builders, people that empty our bins. So many different jobs depend on this site being here.”

Daniel Zeichner: “I tend from my personal background to tell a different story, which is the peace story. The population in Cambridge is generally a young population. In Cherry Hinton, around here is quite an old population, and they all remember the last century and the wars. The reason the European Economic Community was set up in the first place was to stop Germany and France going to war. The idea there aren’t any more wars in the world, just look around – it’s a dangerous place.

“On an emotional level, someone with my background, with an Austrian father and a Cambridgeshire agricultural worker as a grandfather who fought in the First World War, to me it’s a no brainer. It’s a very cheap insurance policy against a very, very horrible prospect which fortunately my generation has never had to face. There will be people in Cherry Hinton who will remember their grandparents talking about it. For me, it’s not just the economics.”

There are those who will say the EU is not fit for purpose. You look at the response to the migrant crisis, the refugee crisis, we’ve looked at the lack of EU social funding coming into Cambridgeshire in particular. Is the fact it’s not perfect enough of a reason to get out?

Alan Johnson: “I think that’s a good way of putting it. It’s not perfect – there is no perfect institution. In actual fact, the migrant crisis, you could pin that on the United Nations – why don’t we leave the United Nations? It would be incomprehensible to leave the United Nations.

“Actually, the EU is fit for purpose. It’s purpose was, as Daniel says, to stop a war every 20 years on our continent where Europeans slaughtered each other. That was the coal and steel community, that was the great vision of Monnet and Schuman. And it’s lasted 70 years, the longest period of peace this continent has ever had. If you think no one can slaughter each other, just look at the Balkans just a few years ago. They were Europeans slaughtering each other.

“Of course it’s not perfect, but the perfect institution doesn’t exist. It’s imperfections, we deal with them in the same way you try to deal with imperfections everywhere else. Reform is a process – it’s not an event. Between now and June the 23rd, my message is lets focus on what’s right about Europe.

“If we were focussing about what’s right about the Palace of Westminster where Daniel and I work, you could say a lot of good things. If you want to say what’s wrong with it, I would say an unelected second chamber, an executive that’s got too much power, a Lords that’s becoming bloated with more and more cronies appointed by the Prime Minister – you could go on all day. So would you leave Westminster? Because an institution isn’t perfect, that is a stupid reason to leave it. You stay and you improve it.”

Daniel Zeichner: “Cambridge has got a much bigger problem with Treasury and Whitehall, around our housing and transport problems. That’s nothing to do with the European Union – that’s our problem. Focus on the real problems.”

Alan Johnson: “Lots of people think Europe does everything, they’ve been listening to this drivel for 20 years that’s not been countered. I spoke to a businessman in Doncaster, well educated, suited up, and I asked what Europe has done that you find so difficult, and he said the national minimum wage – that’s nothing to do with Europe. People think because they hear this it makes all our laws. Basically it’s trade, competition and preservation of fish stocks – which is not a very big issue in Cambridge, I don’t think.

“Everything else we agree to work on, but in terms of what Brussels deal with on its own, we’ve agreed in the Treaty of Rome to those three. If you’re in the Eurozone it’s slightly different, but we’re not. I was a cabinet minister in five different departments – health, education, work and pensions, Home Office, trade and industry. I hardly knew a day where anyone came to me and said ‘you can’t do that minister, because of Europe’.”

So how do you see things panning out over the next few weeks and on the big day, both in Cambridge and nationally?

Alan Johnson: “Daniel won his seat from the Lib Dems and I’m told the Lib Dems are the main opposition on the council, so I imagine we’ll be fighting the same argument. I very much hope Cambridge is the paramount place for Remain vote, and then we’ll worry about the rest of the country.”

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