Campaigners for Britain to remain in the EU have told David Cameron that his government’s handling of the steel crisis has put him in danger of losing the in/out referendum, as Brexit supporters prepare to target steel communities with hundreds of thousands of leaflets.
Grassroots Out is trying to persuade people whose lives will be affected by Tata’s decision to sell off its British assets, which could result in the loss of up to 40,000 jobs, that the UK could take action if it were not part of the EU.
The group will seize on comments by the Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, who said his Labour administration could not offer significant tax cuts to the Port Talbot steelworks because of EU rules.
“Business rates targeted at particular sectors are considered to be selective state aid,” he said. “That means that the amount of relief that can be awarded in business rates is €2.2m [£1.75m] over a three-year period.” Jones contrasted that with an overall bill for business rates of £15m.
The Conservative MP Peter Bone of Grassroots Out said the literature they would send to communities would simply say “if you want to save the steel industry, vote leave”.
“The thing about the steel crisis is that it illustrates the problem with the EU in a very practical manner,” he said. “If we were out of the EU, we could put quotas on, we could put tariffs on, we could do exactly what the American president is doing, we could do what the Chinese are doing – putting on huge tariffs. And that would stop dumping.”
Bone called on the prime minister to “blow what the EU says” by simply slapping tariffs on Chinese steel and providing state aid. His comments came as the former Labour Welsh secretary and Neath MP Lord Hain, who chairs Welsh Labour’s pro-Europe campaign, said the arguments were clearly hurting them on the doorstep.
“The Tories’ abject incompetence and arrogance over the steel crisis is toxic on the doorstep in Wales where they are widely blamed. Their hopes of winning from Labour key Welsh assembly seats which they hold in parliament – Cardiff North, Vale of Glamorgan, Vale of Clywd – have been badly, maybe fatally, damaged.
“But more important for Britain’s future, by mishandling steel David Cameron is in danger of losing the Europe referendum because the EU is quite falsely also being blamed for the steel crisis.”
He said it was false because EU countries such as Germany, France, Holland and Sweden did have viable steel industries.
The steel industry has become the latest issue to intensify the row between in and out campaigners. Boris Johnson, the London mayor, argued in the Telegraph that membership was making it more difficult to support companies.
Downing Steet hit back, with the prime minister’s spokeswoman rejecting the idea that the steel crisis could be abated through Brexit.
“Around 50% of our steel exports go to the EU so it is very important to retain access to that market. By being in the EU we are ... a market of 500m consumers,” she said, insisting that Britain had more power to act against China than it would have alone.
Despite his admission on business rates, Jones made it clear that he too was a supporter of the EU. He told the Welsh assembly: “The UK government action has been slow and inadequate. It is clear that they have not driven a hard enough bargain at EU level to protect our products from the effects of market-distorting steel dumping.
“Indeed, we discovered at the weekend that it’s not the European Union holding the UK back, but the other way round – the UK government has been holding back the European Union.”
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