Britain – Europe’s Lone Ranger?

Last week saw David Cameron deliver his long-awaited speech on Britain’s relationship with Europe. Despite at one stage mentioning the possibility of “draining the Channel” and further aligning the UK with Europe, he pledged a referendum on our relationship with our closest neighbours by 2017, if his party wins the next election.

Reactions have been mixed, but notably President Obama has spoken of how he fears for what role a Britain outside the EU would have in the modern world. It has been a debate about patriotism and fiscal unions and sovereignty and a whole host of high-level, intangible buzz words, but what effect would it have on the lives and jobs of ordinary people?

There are two things for certain – firstly, that about half of all of the trade that we do as a nation is with the EU and secondly that Europe sends many more migrants to Britain than anywhere else in the world. Leaving the EU would surely have an impact on the amount of trade we do with our continental neighbours, reducing our national income significantly and meaning that we would have to go looking for cash elsewhere. Instead of selling our products and services in Germany, France and Scandinavia, we would be forced to transport our wares to China, India and South America. The difficulties of doing this are not insignificant; employers reading this may question just how many Mandarin speakers fill their ranks, or perhaps who in the business they would turn to for help when faced with a new client in Brazil.

Partnering with far-flung growth economies could be precisely what we need in order to return to growth, but it is a risky strategy. Building these longstanding trading relationships takes time and, more importantly, would require an army of people across the country with the necessary cultural and language skills to take a product abroad. If we go it alone, outside of Europe, businesses chasing success will need people with a much wider range of skills than they do know, including foreign languages, a process which can be daunting, time-consuming and costly.

Closing the door to Brussels behind us would also likely mean a change to the free movement agreements, restricting where individuals are able to go to work. Currently, employees can move freely across the EU with the exception of one or two members states were specific restrictions remain in place. As a result of this businesses are easily able to manage several diverse and internationally-focused offices across the continent, with many of the continents best talent drawn to the economic hubs, including London. Britain outside the EU would most likely mean not only less Britons working abroad and therefore a smaller uptake of languages amongst British students, but also less talented foreign migrants able to come and find work in the UK. London, being the truly international hub that it is, is entirely dependent on the wide range of skills from right across the globe that it can attract. Without them, it would quickly lose its lead to New York or Frankfurt and UK-based businesses would lose out too.

So in short, what does all of this mean on the ground? One thing is for sure – a more isolated Britain would mean that those with foreign language skills would be able to command a much higher price for their skills. Those with second or maybe third languages would be at a premium, increasing their value in the eyes of employers and, importantly, giving them much more leverage when it comes to negotiating their salaries. But more seriously perhaps, it would likely mean that those employers not investing in the linguistic and cultural competencies of their staff, or not ensuring that the people they have working for them are internationally-minded, globally-competitive individuals, would be unable to compete in an introspective, ever-shrinking Britain in a world becoming ever more connected.