Last week I enjoyed a quick lesson in coding from a Gospelware developer. Gospelware are a fast growing digital startup in the heart of Newcastle. They breathe energy, dynamism and digital possibilities. Andrew from Sunderland (pictured) explained to me that the computer now checked and colour coded the syntax of the code as you wrote it, a vast improvement from my days as a software engineer.
The last time I actually coded for a living was two decades ago, in France, working for Nortel, a Canadian-American equipment manufacturer. They had many British engineers in their lab at that time, when the UK was in recession. None of us had visas but that didn't matter: we were all members of the European Union.
During my visit Gospelware explained to me why they valued that European membership today. It is important to them to have access to European skills. Their employees come from Newcastle and Sunderland and also Latvia and Holland. They also value the single European market, being able to sell to anywhere in Europe. They were worried about the uncertainty in terms of finance and markets which renegotiating all the existing trade treaties would bring. As a young, dynamic company they identified more easily with a strong, forward-looking Britain proud of its role in Europe and the world, than with a fearful inward-looking drawbridge-up Britain.
Gospelware are not alone. The UK's thriving tech sector is overwhelmingly pro-EU. A full 92% of SMEs in the tech sector have a positive outlook on the next two years' potential for growth, but are also concerned that a vote for Brexit would damage these prospects.
This nearly unanimous concern across small tech businesses is hardly surprising. Right now it's never been a better time to be part of the UK digital sector, good news for the 1.4 million people it employs. It is Europe's leading Digital Economy and worth £118.3 billion to Britain. This is thanks in no small part to Britain's European membership. 43% of UK digital exports go directly to the EU, and many British small businesses benefit from European funding to support research, development and innovation. Figures from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills show that 72% of EU funding to UK business goes to small and medium sized businesses. The digital sector is not concentrated in one big London hub. Tech clusters have developed across the UK from Bristol to Belfast. The number of tech businesses in the North East jumped up 9.2% last year, second only to London.
But that could all change, and not only because a vote for Brexit would bring uncertainty around what would replace EU funding to SMEs. An even greater loss, I believe, would come from blocking our companies' access to a world first in business and trade: The Digital Single Market.
Completion of the Digital Single Market (DSM) will see the EU framework brought to the cutting edge, seizing on the opportunities created by new technologies like Cloud Computing and The Internet of Things, and making it ever easier for consumers and businesses to take advantage of the common market.
With the DSM will come greater and consistent protection for consumers purchasing goods and digital content online as well as the EU-wide Online Dispute Resolution platform. This means you can pretty much buy stuff anywhere in the EU and know that you can enforce your rights if it's faulty or not as described. Dismantling the varying rules around shopping online in different countries would also give SMEs and entrepreneurs easier access to new markets, paving the way for Europe-wide platforms for buying and selling across a market of 500 million EU consumers. The UK is a world leader in e-commerce, and this should help us build on that success.
Other benefits of the DSM are cross-border portability of content and harmonised roaming charges - meaning UK consumers can stream videos from sun-loungers across the Mediterranean without sky high data bills.
These benefits for both buyers and sellers demonstrate why the Single Market beats any bilateral trade deal. The Single Market has a whole dedicated foundation at its back, so it can evolve and respond to new sectors and developments in the wider economy. Without such a framework, how long would it be before a UK-EU trade deal followed dial-up internet into obsolescence?
To leave the European Union now would be a golden opportunity missed - for Britain and for digital. Britain is by far the best positioned EU member to benefit most from the 500 million consumers the Digital Single Market gives access to, and our frontline techies know it.
I hope we vote to remain in the European Union on the 23rd of June, I believe my constituents, my country and the digital economy are stronger in Europe.
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