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Business world 'divided' on EU membership as voters head to the polls

23 Jun 2016

As voters head to the polls to decide whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union (EU) today, prominent figures from the world of business have expressed starkly contrasting views on the benefits of membership.

Gerald Mason – senior vice president of Tate & Lyle Sugars, one of Britain’s oldest companies – has written a pro-Brexit letter to his staff claiming that their jobs would be more secure outside of the EU. He said: ‘Last year EU restrictions and tariffs pushed our raw material costs up by nearly 40 million euros (£31 million) alone, turning what should have been a good profit that we would all share into a 25 million euro loss’.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Sir James Dyson wrote in The Times newspaper that the referendum was ‘the last opportunity to regain control of our futures’, and that voting to remain in the EU ‘would be an act of national self-harm’.

However, the same edition of The Times carried a letter signed by more than 1,280 executives, including directors from 51 FTSE 100 companies, urging Britons to vote Remain. The letter said: ‘We know our firms are stronger in Europe. Our reasons are straightforward: businesses and their employees benefit massively from being able to trade inside the world's largest single market without barriers.

‘We know that Britain leaving the EU would mean having to re-establish terms of trade from scratch with our home market of 500 million consumers. That wouldn't just hurt exporters but the hundreds of thousands of small and medium firms who do business with them.’

‘Divided’

The letter’s signatories employ a combined figure of some 1.75 million people. But despite the number of pro-Remain executives, Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan has insisted that the business world is ‘divided’, with many smaller businesses being pro-Leave.

He told the BBC: ‘We know that big businesses like Brussels, they've spent years and they've spent millions lobbying in Brussels to get rules that suit them and hurt their rivals. The business community is divided, with the exception of the mega banks and the large multinationals which are overwhelmingly pro-EU because they've used the regulatory system in Brussels to raise barriers to entry to make it much tougher for a start-up or an innovator to challenge them.’

The view from Europe

Division over Brexit is reflected across Europe. Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said a vote to leave would mean Britain leaving the European single market, and that ‘out is out’, making it much tougher for Britain to negotiate a favourable trade deal.

But Markus Kerber, the director general of the BDI, which represents German industry, told the BBC: ‘Imposing trade barriers, imposing protectionist measures between our two countries – or between the two political centres, the EU on the one hand and the UK on the other – would be a very, very foolish thing in the 21st century.

‘The BDI would urge politicians on both sides to come up with a trade regime that enables us to uphold and maintain the levels of trade we have, although it will become more difficult.’

Uncertain times

With pre-referendum opinion polls too close to call, and with Chancellor George Osborne warning of the need for a second 2016 Budget in the event of a Leave vote, the country is potentially entering a period of considerable uncertainty.

But regardless of the outcome of today’s vote, we will be on hand to advise you and your business, and to help guide you through whatever lies in store. Please contact us for advice.

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