Boost your support for EU membership, CBI chief tells bosses

20 May 2015 -


Lobby group urges business leaders to be more vocal about benefits of UK’s ties to Brussels

Jermaine Haughton

Bosses who support the UK’s EU membership should “turn up the volume” of their enthusiasm and put their case in terms that the public will grasp, says CBI president Sir Mike Rake.

In advance notes of a speech he will give this evening at the CBI’s annual dinner, Rake said: “Business has increasingly spoken out on this crucial issue and the time has come to turn up the volume – speaking out clearly and in a language which people can understand. In the months to come, our country will have to make its own choice. A choice between openness and isolation. Between shaping the future or retreating into the past.”

He added: “The question is not whether the UK would survive outside the EU, but whether it would thrive. No one has yet set out a credible alternative future to EU membership. The current alternatives are not realistic options – little or no influence and the obligation to comply with EU principles whilst still paying most of the costs … Business must be crystal clear that membership is in our national interest. The EU is key to our national prosperity.”

Rake’s words have thrust the looming potential for a “Brexit” – British exit from the Union – back into the public eye, showing that, much like the Scottish Referendum was, Britain’s place in the EU is a contentious issue among key figures in management and leadership. Here are some other views that have emerged in recent days…

1. “Easy does it”

Icap chief Michael Spencer has called for the in/out vote not to be rushed. Opposing the likes of Bank of England governor Mark Carney – who has asked for the vote to take place as quickly as possible to prevent disruption to UK trade and economy – the broker giant's leader said the issue needs substantial discussion and debate before a ballot is scheduled. A former Conservative Party treasurer who has donated more than £4 million to the party, Spencer said the UK does require a referendum because “the issue needs to be put to bed” – but added: “We need to give a proper amount of time for the prime minister to negotiate and achieve substantive change.”

2. “Stay connected”

Vodafone has also expressed concerns that the uncertainty over a Brexit could damage business. Leader Vittorio Colao believes that the UK is stronger as part of the 28-member bloc. “The decision to stay or exit is … for the British citizens to decide,” he said. “But at Vodafone we are convinced that for our shareholders, customers and the company itself, it would be good to stay in Europe and it would be good to support the creation of a single, digital market. Europe needs a large digital marketplace in order to be competitive with America and China, essentially, and it’s good for Vodafone to be a part of it.” On the consequences of a lengthy build-up to an exit vote, he added: “Uncertainty is never good for business, although Vodafone is very large and we are in many countries inside and out of Europe so we can deal with uncertainty – it’s never good, but we can deal with it.”

3. “Feed the future”

Also firmly in the “pro” camp is Food and Drink Federation director general Ian Wright. “UK food and drink manufacturers want to be part of a strong, outward facing, competitive EU that leads through innovation, supported by science and evidence-based policy making,” he told today. He added: “The EU has a key role to play in meeting the growing global demand for food, while adapting to the impacts of climate change and dwindling resources.”

4. “Dig our own path”

Tory donor Lord Anthony Bamford – head of construction machinery makers JCB – argues that the UK could successfully make a go of it outside the EU sphere. “We are the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world,” he said. “We could exist on our own, peacefully and sensibly.” He went on to stress that a split would enable the UK to “negotiate as our own country rather than being one of 28 nations.”

Meanwhile, Matthew Elliott – chief executive of anti-EU campaign group Business for Britain – says that the CBI’s recognition of the need for a referendum has been a long time coming. Citing the support for a Brexit that has emerged from figures such as Sir James Dyson, Elliott said: “It’s great that the CBI are throwing their weight behind a referendum, having spent so long moving heaven and earth to prevent people having their say.” He added that JCB’s support of an independent Britain, showed that “real business leaders and entrepreneurs are not slavish to the European project”.

For more thoughts on change management, check out CMI’s special toolkit.

Image of Sir Mike Rake courtesy of the World Economic Forum, via the Wikimedia Commons.

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