UK Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that the much-anticipated referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU will take place on 23 June this year.
Following protracted negotiations in Brussels involving senior leaders from all 28 EU member states, a draft reform deal was agreed by all parties and has been hailed by Cameron as securing ‘special status’ within the EU for Britain.
Announcing the referendum outside Downing Street on Saturday, the Prime Minister said he will be campaigning for Britain to stay in, stating that he believes Britain will be “safer, stronger and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union.”
The main points of the negotiated reform agreement centre around the UK’s ability to: opt out of further political ties with the EU; reduce red tape; ensure economic competitiveness; and cap migration and migrant benefits.
However, the deal has been criticised by ‘leave’ campaigners, including six of Cameron’s own Conservative party cabinet ministers, for not going far enough to protect the UK’s interests.
Following the announcement, Commons leader Chris Grayling immediately placed himself in the ‘leave’ camp, declaring that he believes the EU to be holding the UK back: “We cannot control our borders, [or] limit the number of people who come here do trade deals” he told reporters on Saturday.
Mixed reaction from business
While individuals, rather than businesses, will ultimately decide the UK’s fate, the business lobby has had plenty to say on how membership of the EU affects their balance sheets.
Multinationals have broadly come out in favour of the ‘remain’ campaign, with many companies giving the ability to move money, people and products more freely as a determining factor in the argument.
The CBI announced it will campaign to stay in, with former president and BT chairman Mike Rake commenting that there are "no credible alternatives" to staying in the EU.
Although the British Chambers of Commerce has stated that it will remain neutral, a recent survey of members found that 55% support the UK staying in a reformed EU.
However Anthony Bamford, chairman of high profile British manufacturer JCB disagrees, stating that leaving the EU would allow the UK to “negotiate enhanced trade deals”.
Uncertainty and upheaval
One argument consistently used by ‘leave’ campaigners in business is that many small and medium-sized businesses may stand to benefit from the removal of EU red tape.
But with the uncertainty and upheaval that has dominated the UK business landscape over the past 18 months, what also may appeal to SME owners is the chance to take a step back and look at how the raft of new legislative changes the government has announced will affect their businesses and wider industry.
With businesses large and small crying out for stability, the prospect of more upheaval, uncertainty, new regulations and possible introduction to new barriers to trade could influence many UK business owners to vote to stay in.
What remains clear is that although we’ve now reached the end of the beginning of the great EU referendum debate, we’re far from the beginning of the end, and whether we like it or not we are in for four months of intensive EU debate.
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