Bring forward the EU referendum: The UK’s tech sector can’t wait two years

The digital sector needs to unite to draw up its manifesto, and call for an informed and prompt debate on Europe (Source: Getty)
As the dust settles on one of the most extraordinary General Election campaigns in generations, a new battle looms on the horizon for Tech City. The nation now faces a war over “Brexit”. David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum by 2017 on the UK’s EU membership will have major repercussions for the economy and, just as importantly, for Tech City.

Key figures in the startup community need to put their political allegiances aside and unite to apply pressure on Cameron to have the referendum brought forward. Two years is simply too long for this cloud to hang over the UK.

Britain’s economic recovery – with tech a key driver – has been encouraging but delicate.

The uncertainty, confusion and hesitation that an EU referendum will bring to investors and markets could have a significant impact on the trajectory of the recovery, affecting everything from where a company puts down its roots to how it recruits its talent.

Once the debate really hits the agenda, companies looking to create jobs or establish bases in Europe may decide that setting up in the UK offers too many risks in the long term and plump instead for a country committed to EU membership. We can’t afford for this to happen.

The UK needs to remain an attractive place for tech companies to set up. The Brexit debate will inevitably make places like Berlin, Dublin or Amsterdam appear a safer bet, weakening London’s “Silicon Roundabout” and undoing years of progress.

The implications for employers in Tech City are also profound. It has been forecast that the UK will need to fill as many as 1m new tech jobs by 2020. Technology companies already face a skills gap in many key areas, and Brexit concerns won’t help.

Exit from the EU would mean the end of the principle of free movement of workers within Europe. EU employees now living in Britain would be subject to new visa and legal requirements – putting the talent pool at risk.

Much of the tech industry’s growth is a result of talented developers from across Europe not only filling in Britain’s skills gap, but passing on knowledge to local developers and helping the industry thrive.

For example, within our company, we have 13 nationalities working together. Onfido, a close partner of ours and a backbone of the sharing economy, has 29 nationalities speaking 21 languages in its team. These are largely people who have relocated to London from all corners of Europe.

This digital multiculturalism, present in most startups, helps make hubs like Tech City glow and be seen as a place to aspire to for a new generation of UK workers and students.

Burgeoning sectors such as the sharing economy, potentially worth £9bn to the UK by 2025, could be put at risk. The government has committed itself to making the UK a global leader in this field. Yet we could be entering an era where politicians offer support with one hand, but effectively lock out the talent needed for the sharing economy to function with the other.

Almost all tech companies enjoy a fantastic blend of foreign and domestic workers, and employers should ask themselves what would happen to those teams if the UK steps outside the EU.

A huge portion of those driving the UK digital sector are young, bright and politically aware. Global in their outlook, the new borders and regulations Brexit would entail clash with their worldview.

Most of the media debate about remaining in Europe focuses on manufacturing and finance, but the impact on Tech City will be just as critical. Tech leaders and employers can’t afford to leave the politics to others, and need to utilise their networks, communication skills and innovative thinking to make the case for remaining in the EU.

Unlike a General Election, where MPs can be kicked out and brought back in a few years later, an exit from the EU would be irreversible. Eurosceptics may want to reshape the UK as an island apart, but they will more likely simply cast our island adrift.

The digital sector needs to unite to draw up its manifesto, and call for an informed and prompt debate on Europe. We must get this referendum out of the way.

A week is a long time in politics. Two years is an eternity. Tech City can’t afford to wait that long.

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