The EU referendum debate is in full swing, with the Electoral Commission having named the official campaigns. Here James Sproule, the IoD’s chief economist and director of policy, explains that the business organisation has a key role to play as the arguments are aired but must stay impartial and be ready to support businesses whatever the outcome
This spring is going to be dominated, at least in much of Britain, by arguments surrounding the referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. This is an issue that generates a good deal of passion, not least among IoD members. So where is the IoD going to stand on all of this? We are going to remain neutral: concerned, interested and informative – but neutral.
So what is driving our stance? There are a host of considerations, not least the 2014 Lobbying Act, which sets out that if any organisation actively campaigns for one outcome or another, it must register with the Electoral Commission and adhere to strict spending limits.
More importantly, we want to be in the best position possible to lobby the government whatever the result of the referendum. If we are to remain, there is a strong desire to see the pace of reform in the EU continue, and there is clearly a job for us to press home the business arguments for a competitive trading bloc. If UK voters decide to leave, there is going to be a fair amount of work to do on deciding just what the future will look like.
If we are not campaigning, what are we going to do? We can inform. Our recent snap survey, taken after David Cameron had returned with his deal from Brussels, showed that 60 per cent of IoD members are in favour of remaining in the EU, while 31 per cent want to leave – one in 10 remain undecided. In April last year over half of our members were waiting to see the deal before they committed to having a firm view. Opinions have now largely been crystallised, and the snap survey revealed that “waiting for the deal” members divided almost equally between the Leave and Remain camps.
Over 60 per cent of IoD members thought it was important to protect non-eurozone countries, boost competitiveness and end “ever closer union”, but the majority of members surveyed were less concerned about the changes to social benefits for EU migrants.
Apparently the easiest part of the deal the prime minister negotiated was to gain agreement on improving European competitiveness. IoD members agreed, with 97 per cent supporting his position. Although, more cynically, 62 per cent do not think that the EU will take effective action. Clearly there remains work to be done after the referendum.
But it is not only the IoD that has work to do. Boards of many companies also have to focus on the issue – some 40 per cent of members reported they had yet to discuss the issue at boardroom or senior management level. A helpful start might well be to attend one of the hustings that we are planning on holding around the country. These will set out the key arguments, and have speakers from each camp giving their best arguments to win you over one way or another. Please watch out for dates and venues near you.