Early May saw the EU referendum issue regurgitated yet again, as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) saw gains in a number of by-elections around the country.
Prime minister David Cameron (pictured, below right) has promised to give voters a choice of in or out, after the possibility of renegotiation of membership terms – but only if the Tories win the next election.
Leaving aside the fact that this sounds essentially like a bribe, the idea of leaving the EU remains controversial across many sectors of society.
According to BBC business editor Robert Peston in a related online report, the bosses of most large companies would be horrified at the thought of leaving the EU.
But what does the channel think, and what sort of relationship with the EU does it favour?
Steve Rosser, group commercial manager at Intact Integrated Services, notes that the overall business benefits for a company being within the EU are quite varied, and not nearly as clear cut as the question of whether we should stay or go implies.
"On the positive side, there is a very definite ease to transactions across member country borders, as neither taxes nor other ‘fees' are added to the overall costs. This extends seamlessly to services, allowing organisations such as us to trade with ease across the economic area," Rosser says.
"On the negative side, are a combination of factors such as legislative burdens applied to UK companies that would not otherwise exist, such as working-time directives."
He notes that there is still a complex array of labour laws across the EU despite it being a single trading area. Cross-border issues – such as recent confusion around VAT payments in France – can also still occur either inside or outside the EU.
"For instance, organisations in some countries knowingly carry surplus headcount due to the punitive cost of release – Italy especially comes to mind – while other countries such as Belgium have very worker-friendly ‘social' obligations that come with correspondingly high taxation and thus high to the point of uncompetitive labour costs," he says.
EU membership also specifically prevents the UK signing trade agreements independently with the rest of the world, he says, and the rest of the world accounts for more than 50 per cent of trade and rising.
How should rest-of-world opportunities be addressed?
The challenge for channel organisations is how to address these opportunities in the rest of the world and still embrace its European neighbours.
"The sweet spot is clearly to have entities both within the EU and also in key territories outside the EU, in order to take advantage of market conditions on either side. That is certainly the approach that has helped drive our international business," says Rosser.
According to the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the business world favours change in the UK-EU relationship. The body surveyed 4,387 member British businesses hailing from a range of sectors in February and March in the wake of David Cameron's January speech on Europe.
John Longworth, director general of the BCC, says the respondents indicated a preference for renegotiation, rather than further integration or outright withdrawal, from the EU.
The EU Business Barometer offered five scenarios to respondents to give their opinions on for Britain's future relationship with the EU, basing their views on business and economic prospects.
About 64 per cent said they thought the UK should "remain in the EU, but with specific powers transferred from Brussels back to Westminster." Eleven per cent disagreed.
Full withdrawal the least popular option
The least popular option was full withdrawal from the EU, with 60 per cent voting against this scenario. However, it also appeared that many may feel that improvements could be made, as the "no change" scenario attracted the lowest number of respondents, only 15 per cent of the total.
The top three priorities for change were:
• Employment law (54 per cent)
• Health and safety law (46 per cent) and
• Regional development policies (33 per cent).
Respondents also wanted to see renegotiation of the justice, home affairs, and public sector procurement areas. Eleven per cent were unsure of the impact of a partial withdrawal, 14 per cent said they thought it would have no impact., and 11 per cent said they thought it would have a negative impact.
Longworth says 42 per cent said that maintaining the EU status quo could negatively affect the UK economy. "We now have confirmation of what we have suspected for some time," he says. "From a business perspective, any renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the EU must therefore focus on these areas which are not integral to the functioning of the single market in goods and services."
Tony Lock (pictured, left), programme director and analyst at Freeform Dynamics, is in the unusual position of being based partly on this side of the Channel, and partly on the Continent. Whether or not the UK should stay in the EU, leave, or renegotiate the relationship is not, he says, an easy question to answer.
"However, my instinct is that organisations are much better off inside, rather than outside, simply because of the freer trade. I think some participants are opposed to our leaving the EU but you are still going to be bound by many legal aspects of the EU," he notes.
Outside the EU, you may have even less influence on what the EU ultimately decides to do that might affect your business and your country's local economy, he suggests.
On the other hand, renegotiating the EU-UK relationship could be tricky, because changes may affect different EU members in different ways. Some will support some changes that may have a negative impact on other members, and vice versa, says Lock.
Alex Jackman, head of policy at the Forum of Private Business (FPB), says the small business group does not support a simple in-or-out referendum, simply because it does not think it will give anything like a clear mandate. He agrees that the common market has helped some businesses grow but, nevertheless, there are issues about being in the EU that must be looked at.
"Even an overwhelming ‘in' would not silence the doubters, nor an overwhelming ‘out' lead to exit, given the political flip-flopping over this issue of recent years. And in all probability, there would not be a significant majority one way or the other," explains Jackson.
"But unless the UK can renegotiate terms, anti-EU feeling will grow."
Jackson says many EU institutions are already seen as undemocratic, and the perspective could darken. "The ever-spiralling central budgets will create even louder dissenting voices than at present. So the issue must be tackled," he says.
"In particular, we must insist that EU budgets are more closely monitored. If the European Commission wants greater funds from countries, it should first have proved the case that money cannot be saved from within. Businesses will tell you there are plenty of pointless policy exercises that could be culled if savings were being sought."
Some commentators, such as Richard Murphy, director of Tax Research UK, have suggested that issues such as tax avoidance might be easier to manage out of the EU – unless of course the EU speeds up the synchronisation of member states' business and tax affairs.
And UKIP at the time of writing was achieving 18 per cent in the polls, gaining on the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, although Labour's popularity also seems to be rising.
In the Guardian Sir Roger Carr, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), chairman of Centrica, and deputy chairman and senior independent director of the Court of the Bank of England, wrote an opinion piece outlining his views.
According to Carr, leaving the EU would be bad for Britain.
"UK membership encourages large company capital investment within the UK, creating jobs and wealth that trickle down to medium and small company suppliers. Departure would be bad for employment and growth across a broad business spectrum. Europe benefits companies of all sizes," he writes. "Growth in new markets, however rapid, could not compensate for the inevitable decline in European activity."
However, as Carr then says: "Now is the time for cases to be made and arguments to be heard. Silence will not be golden."
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