Membership of the EU is what matters to business leaders – not the Miliband sideshow

Big business may not be happy with some of Labour’s rhetoric but it is as one with the pro-EU party on Europe

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The Independent Online

Ask any boss of a major British business what concerns them the most, and I guarantee the answer will come back: Europe, or to be more specific, the possibility of Britain’s exit from the EU. It’s the one thing they dread above all others. The falling oil price, instability in the Middle East, inequality, diplomatic crisis with Russia, a China slowdown – these all pale into insignificance against a “Brexit”.

They may mention the prospects of Labour winning the general election or emerging at the head of a new coalition government, but again, it’s our place in the EU that matters above all else. I was with a senior business figure this week, and he put it top of his list. Two bank chiefs said the same: it would be disastrous for them, their businesses and Britain if we left.

Which is why the current spat about Ed Miliband’s attitude towards big business is something of a sideshow. Of course, most capitalists view the socialist Labour leader with suspicion if not downright derision.

The controversy started with some remarks made by Stefano Pessina, the head of Boots. He was asked at the end of an interview what he thought about Miliband and he said what many in his position would have said: that he was alarmed by his anti-big business rhetoric and policy proposals. But if Pessina had been invited to say what was more significant, a Miliband victory or Britain remaining in the EU, I would wager he would say the latter.

The Miliband row is hot air. Big business is stoking the flames in the run-up to the general election, putting down a marker as to which side it favours. Naturally, in the absence of a “prawn sandwich” offensive from Miliband, it would favour the Tories. Miliband is showing signs of being a market interventionist – something big business abhors – and has made promises of a heavier tax burden for the rich – a section of society that includes all top business people.

If they can head him off now, they will. But they also know that what Miliband says today, and in the next months of the election campaign, could prove to be a far cry from what he actually does should he reach No 10. Theory and practice are very different – especially once pressure groups and civil servants have pointed out any impracticalities.

Likewise, those other issues will either be solved in time or prove to be beyond their influence. As heads of businesses based in Britain, what concerns them here and now is the continued uncertainty about their country’s membership of the EU.

 

Lord Allen, the Labour peer, former chief of ITV, and leading player in the organisation of the 2012 Olympics, yesterday summed up the consensus: “One thing that we the business community wants is clarity and certainty. If David Cameron spent two years in a debate about whether the UK should be in Europe there would be neither. Major employers including Hitachi, Hyundai, Ford, BMW and Nissan have already warned about the dangers of disengagement with Europe. Other businesses both large and small are deeply worried. For all the debate over the last few days about business and politics this is still the biggest risk to British firms We cannot and we should not push Britain towards the EU exit door or putting Britain’s future at risk for the sake of party management.”

Doubtless some will maintain that as a Labour peer, Allen is trying to deflect criticism away from Miliband and the leadership. He isn’t: uncertainty about the EU and the chance that Britain may leave far outweighs any agonies over a Labour triumph.

Big business may not be happy with some of Labour’s rhetoric but it is as one with the pro-EU party on Europe. Similarly, whatever the Tories say to pander to big business is more than cancelled out by the party’s twisting and turning over the EU, and the suspicion that it will make concessions on a referendum over future membership to head off the advance of Ukip. 

Amid the rise of Ukip – and the attacks aimed at greedy bankers, rewards for failure, bullying tactics against suppliers, and all the other charges levelled at major corporations – it’s often overlooked as to where these same organisations stand on the EU.

The tendency is to shrug and say well they would say that wouldn’t they – as if continued EU membership is part of the same executive gravy train. In fact, these are the country’s biggest employers speaking. They recognise that the EU is by no means perfect and want it reformed, but they’re also aware that departing would make British trade with a giant market on its doorstep more difficult, and that this nation’s place as a springboard for that huge trading bloc would be threatened.

Two pro-EU lobby groups – Business for New Europe, formed by the leading City PR adviser Roland Rudd, and TheCityUK – enjoy heavyweight corporate support. Business for New Europe can count on BAE Systems, WPP, London Stock Exchange, BT Group and Royal Bank of Scotland; TheCityUK includes among its members Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, and BNP Paribas. If Britain left, the pressure on these banks to relocate away from the City would be intense.

At the top of British business support for staying is so universal that it’s virtually impossible to find a major company in the Eurosceptic camp. The only one is Next, which is headed by the Tory peer Lord Wolfson. But compared with the outpourings of Nigel Farage, even Wolfson’s views seem soft – more Eurosceptic with a Europhile tinge.

Wolfson wishes the No campaign would focus on replacing the EU with a free trade zone, like a Hong Kong or Singapore. He’s worried that the whole debate in the UK has become focused on greater protectionism and xenophobia. He’s not by any stretch an out-and-out EU opponent.

What this means for the election is that Labour should play up its views on Europe. If it did, the Tories would soon discover which party is regarded as being “anti-business”.

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