Cameron’s EU reform package key to business vote

European Referendum

Half (50 per cent) of the senior businesspeople polled in a major new British Chambers of Commerce survey have revealed that the concessions the Prime Minister brings back from Brussels will have an impact on their voting intentions in the upcoming EU referendum.

The findings from the leading business group demonstrate that many businesspeople have not yet taken a firm position on the question of Britain’s future relationship with the EU – and a clear desire for greater clarity from Downing Street.

If an in-out referendum were to be held tomorrow, 63% of businesspeople would vote to remain in the European Union, 27% would vote to leave, and 10% are unsure.  Yet fully 50% said their vote could change depending on David Cameron’s renegotiation package.

The survey polled over 2,000 senior business leaders from all sectors, regions and all company sizes during August 2015. Highlights – including business understanding, impacts, and priorities – are detailed below.

These results were backed up locally by the response to an EU business survey carried out in Lancashire.

According to the survey, jointly carried out by the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce and Europe Direct, 59 per cent of surveyed companies said leaving the EU would have a negative impact on their business.

However respondents did call for EU reforms, with 47 per cent saying remaining in the Union while transferring powers back to the UK would have a positive impact.

And fewer than a quarter of respondents to the Chamber’s ‘EU Business Survey’, designed to assess business attitudes to the European Union, favoured a continuation of the current arrangement.

Chamber president Norman Tenray said: “The significant conclusion to be drawn from our survey was that Lancashire firms are pragmatic when it comes to Europe.

“A majority of businesses have told us they believe the UK has benefited to some degree from being a member of the European Union, with a clear majority wanting the UK to remain a member.

“Businesses tell us, however, that UK membership needs to be based on a reformed relationship that sees a substantial shift of power from Brussels back to member states.”

Mr Tenray added: “Our Chamber hosted a debate with three representatives from the European Parliament – Sajjad Karim, Steven Woolfe and Julie Ward – at Preston’s College recently and I was quite surprised at the length and scope of things the EU is actually involved in.

“Things such as the standardisation of mobile phone tariffs, meaning you don’t get ripped off when you use your phone in other countries, and improvements in fuel efficiency.

“These are all pieces of legislation that are having a positive impact on businesses in Lancashire and I think a lot of people, including those in business, don’t actually realise just what the EU has done for them.”

John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Businesspeople want more clarity on the Prime Minister’s renegotiation plans before they have their say on Britain’s future in the EU. With half keeping their options open before making up their mind on how to vote, business’s top concerns need to be at the top of Downing Street’s negotiation agenda.

“Businesspeople are demanding a real shift in the balance of power between the UK and Brussels in any deal. Clear safeguards for the UK, and greater decision-making here at home, are at the top of their priority list.”

Key highlights – August 2015 BCC Europe Survey

BUSINESS KNOWLEDGE

Businesspeople are following the EU debate closely, with 51% reading about it at least weekly, and a further 26% at least every fortnight.

Majorities say they are familiar with the implications of an in-out referendum, with 72% saying they understand the implications for their business and 69% saying they understand the implications for the UK.

BUSINESS IMPACTS

Over eight in ten business leaders report no material impacts of the planned referendum on their businesses to date.

If the UK were to leave the EU, 40% currently expect this would have a negative impact on their overall growth strategy; 40% expect it would have no impact; and 14% expect it would have a positive impact.

When asked about the impact of a future change in the UK’s status in the EU on their business, 46% of businesspeople expect a negative impact – but the same amount, 46% expect either no impact or a positive impact.

THE PM’S RENEGOTIATION PACKAGE

Only 31% of businesspeople claim to be familiar with the PM’s renegotiation package – with those who are not at all familiar representing 30%.

Businesspeople want the Prime Minister to focus his aspirations for renegotiation on greater powers for the UK parliament to block proposed EU legislation (56%), allowing the UK to opt out from ‘ever closer union’ (41%) and greater UK control over migration (40%).

The most beneficial pan-EU reforms would be a reduction in regulation and red tape (59%) and a change in the balance of power between Brussels and individual member countries (45%). Some 11% do not believe any EU reforms would have a beneficial impact on their business.

VOTING INTENTIONS

Businesspeople who favour remaining in the EU are more committed to their position (48% completely committed) versus those who favour leaving the EU (37% completely committed). Notwithstanding, 50% of the total believe the Prime Minister’s reform package could affect their vote.

Mr Longworth added: “Many assume that the EU referendum is a simple in-out debate where both camps are firmly entrenched in their positions, but this survey shows that businesspeople want more information and greater clarity, and for now at least their vote is still up for grabs.”

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