In a referendum that will likely be dominated by the economic case for and against leaving the EU, business opinion is going to be a kay battleground. While BfB does not campaign for an exit, its position is more direct than other business groups: an end to ever closer union, a trading relationship with the EU and so on.
That’s why the scope of today’s polling is notable. The sample has been designed to be representative of business size, sector and location – in contrast to the more pro-EU CBI, for example, which is disproportionately made up of large multinationals.
Business wants a referendum
Labour’s reasons for refusing to support a referendum – their public reasons, at least – are about alleged uncertainty. They claim an attempt at renegotiation and a referendum giving people a say on the issue will somehow destabilise the economy.
The BfB poll blows that suggestion out of the water. The business people polled overwhelmingly support a referendum by 66 per cent to 26 per cent. That includes companies who export to the EU and those who would vote to stay in – unlike some politicians, they see the sense in letting the people decide on something so important.
Business is under no illusion about the scale of the task, either – they think meaningful change to the EU requires treaty changes, by a margin of 56 per cent to 23 per cent. (As previously noted, treaty change is one of the issues where EU leaders will almost put their foot down and refuse to do any deal).
Our trading future is outside the EU
By 58 per cent to 21 per cent, business leaders think the UK should be focusing on the growing BRICs rather than the troubled EU to find new trade opportunities in future. This is the contrast that will colour the debate – the EU represents a temporary, shrinking bunker in which we can try to hide from global competition, whereas the outside world offers all the opportunities for growth, new jobs, more exports and a more developed economy. The EU’s protectionism forces us to choose one or the other, and it seems clear where businesses want to be dealing with.
The Single Market has lost its shine
Already, the nascent pro-Brussels campaign British Influence has been tweeting endlessly about the importance of the Single Market to the UK. They seem to view it as a silver bullet argument. And yet, the BfB polling found business thinks the costs of the Single Market now outweigh the benefits – by 46 per cent to 37 per cent.
Small businesses are the most concerned about the costs, while big businesses are the most relaxed.
However, it isn’t as simple as saying that it’s about the scope of a company’s trading activities. Intriguingly, the Chief Executives of companies who trade solely within the EU also believe the costs outweigh the benefits – and they are the people who know the Single Market best.
All in all, the research is encouraging for those who want a far looser, trading relationship, or to leave the EU (or those who believe that to get the former you need to do the latter).
For too long, the “voice of business” in the EU debate has actually been the voice of people who are ideologically pro-Brussels but have managed to set themselves up as claiming to speak for the business community. Any stagnant market can always benefit from a disruptive new entrant to shake it up. Business for Britain is certainly doing that, and today’s numbers show they are rather more representative of business than their opponents.