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EU or not the EU? That is the question

After the May election victory the Conservative Government activated a manifesto pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017, with expectations rising that it could be held next year.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) itself are not taking a position in the referendum, our commitment is to demonstrate the broad views across the business community and to inform businesses. Over the next couple of months we will be undertaking an evidence gathering exercise, specifically through surveying Chamber members and businesses at the UK level, and drawing out deeper analysis through face-to-face contact at local Chambers.

I had the pleasure to chair a roundtable at the Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce, to gather evidence of business attitudes towards the present debate around the UK’s relationship with the European Union and the proposed in/out referendum and to explore what impacts the EU has on their business, if any.

The EU is an important market, for British exporters: with 44.6% of UK exports of goods and services destined for the EU in 2014, as well as for consumers: 53.2% of UK imports and services are from the EU.

Which is why businesspeople are following the EU debate closely, with seven in ten actively engaged. The majority of business leaders report no material impacts of the planned referendum on their businesses to date. What was strikingly clear was that businesspeople want more clarity on the Prime Minister’s renegotiation plans before they have their say on Britain’s future in the EU.

This mirrors the findings from the BCC’s latest Europe survey which showed that many businesspeople have not yet taken a firm position on the question of Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The survey polled over 2,000 senior business leaders from all sectors, regions and all company sizes during August 2015.

The big questions for businesses surrounding this debate at the moment include:

When will the EU referendum be held?

The date is not yet known, although David Cameron has committed to holding it before the end of 2017. Ideally he should call the vote next year, in order to avoid a long period of uncertainty that might hurt businesses.

What will the referendum ask?

The Electoral Commission has recommended the following wording for the referendum question: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Who can vote in the EU referendum?

Eligibility will be based on the criteria for voting in a general election, which means citizens of most EU countries (who can vote in local and European elections in Britain) will not be allowed to take part. Anyone over the age of 18 who falls into one of the following groups can cast a vote: British citizens resident in the UK; British citizens resident overseas for less than 15 years; Citizens of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus resident in the UK; Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK; Commonwealth citizens resident in Gibraltar. However, citizens of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, which are not in the EU, will not take part. In addition, members of the House of Lords will be allowed to vote, despite being ineligible to cast a ballot at general elections.

If a referendum were held tomorrow, what would happen?

The BCC’s Europe survey revealed only 45% of businesses say they are completely committed in their voting intentions, highlighting the need for a constructive debate.

The Prime Minister has set out some aspects of his reform and renegotiation agenda with the EU – but not with enough clarity. Businesses are increasingly demanding to see a strong and credible package of reforms that demonstrably protect the national interest for them to take a firm position on the debate, with 50% or so businesspeople citing they will be influenced by the substance of the renegotiated package.

Author Sukhdeep Dhillion, Global Economic Adviser at the British Chambers of Commerce

Sukhdeep jointly delivered the The EU and its Impact on UK Business’ 60 Minute Seminar with Taylor Insights. The event was hosted at Northamponshire Chamber.

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