A GROUNDSWELL of support for renegotiating Britain’s ties with Europe is building among business leaders, a major report indicates today.
The poll of thousands of firms from across the UK also reveals a majority against a total withdrawal from European Union membership. However, the number of businesses that believe quitting Brussels would damage the UK’s economic prospects has fallen in the past three months.
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) EU business barometer comes as the debate over Britain’s future within Europe heats up.
Last week, CBI president Sir Mike Rake hit out at the “uncertainty” being caused by David Cameron’s plans for a referendum on membership of the EU. Addressing CBI Scotland’s annual dinner, at which the Prime Minister was also present, Rake said the Conservative proposal to hold such a vote in 2017 was causing “real concern” for companies.
Today’s BCC report is based on the findings from more than 3,200 businesses. They were questioned on a number of scenarios for Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
More than half of respondents said that remaining in the EU while transferring specific powers back to Westminster would positively affect the UK’s business and economic prospects. The result – 60 per cent – marks an increase of six percentage points since a similar sounding was taken in the first quarter of 2014.
Some 59 per cent of firms believe that leaving the EU would harm the UK’s business and economic prospects, down from 61 per cent in the previous quarter.
Meanwhile, further integration is also seen as having a negative impact on UK trade. Almost half of those surveyed – 46 per cent – see closer ties with the rest of the Continent hindering Britain’s prospects.
John Longworth, the BCC’s director-general, said: “These results show that firms believe a renegotiated relationship with the EU, rather than further integration or outright withdrawal, is most likely to deliver economic benefit for the UK.
“They do not want to get caught up in the whirlpool of further integration – only 20 per cent of those firms we surveyed felt that this would be beneficial. Yet the same companies say they do not want to rush for the exit.
“Unless the European Union is perceived to function in the interests of all of its member states, it will continue to lose legitimacy not just among the voting public but among businesspeople as well.”
He added: “The completion of the single market, no matter how huge an opportunity, is not the most important element of any negotiations the Prime Minister undertakes with the UK’s European partners.
“The top priority must be to secure safeguards for Britain against decisions the EU is yet to take. This will prevent Britain from the tangle of an ‘ever-closer union’ that the Eurozone will inevitably now pursue.”
Cameron told business leaders at Thursday’s CBI Scotland dinner: “Yes, of course referendums create uncertainty. But I think it is much better in life to confront these big issues, answer the questions, have a clear strategy for your country and then see it through to the other side.”
The PM said: “Of course I want to end uncertainty, whether over the future of the United Kingdom or the future of the United Kingdom within the European Union.
“But I think in modern politics, if you want to trust people and take them with you, you can’t maintain those relationships without public support.”