Britain's EU membership referendum is a once in a generation choice for the UK. The result is going to define our relationship with our closest geographical neighbours for decades to come. It is a key issue for businesses, but they are avoiding the debate. This is dangerous. When the people of Britain make their choice in a year or so, they need to be able to do so in full possession of the facts – which businesses can help provide.
The renegotiation is important for business, particularly the focus on protecting the integrity of the single market and the interests of non-Eurozone countries. However, some of the benefits of British membership are already well known. Last week, business secretary Sajid Javid reiterated the UK’s support for free trade; this was a welcome reminder of the way the UK stands to gain if free trade agreements under negotiation by the EU are implemented fully. He noted that, if all the deals currently being discussed were agreed, exports could rise by £40bn – the equivalent of £1,500 for every citizen. He was also correct in saying that “key parts of the financial services industry have expressed concern about the consequences if we were to leave the EU”.
Of course, views on Britain’s EU membership differ within the City, but the clear majority wants membership to continue. TheCityUK’s 2013 survey of business leaders showed that 84 per cent wanted Britain to remain a member of the EU, that 95 per cent said access to the single market is important for the UK’s future competitiveness, and that 90 per cent thought that an exit from the single market would damage the UK’s competitiveness.
This view is echoed across the business community: CBI surveys of its members show strong support for continued membership of the EU. Tech London Advocates also recently released a survey of its membership showing that 86 per cent thought the UK should remain in the EU. The organisation identified five key areas where leaving the EU could damage the growth of Britain’s technology sector: access to talent; influence in regulatory decisions; access to trade agreements; ability to attract global HQs to the UK; and collaboration with other European digital hubs.
Its founder Russ Shaw commented: “every challenge the capital faces in its efforts to remain a centre for digital excellence will be exacerbated by withdrawal from the European Union… it would send a desultory message to the global digital community – Britain is no longer open for business.”
There are some who say that this is a political debate which business should keep out of, or that business should keep quiet until the results of the renegotiation are known. This is misguided. It’s not about businesses telling people how to vote, but about helping to explain the costs and benefits of EU membership. And if businesses don’t express their views, they can’t complain if the debate seems to be going the “wrong way”. It is time for business to start playing its vital role in this debate.