- Inflexible EU holds back entrepreneurs, companies say
- Osborne says renegotiating over 50 trade deals would take time
More than 200 small-business leaders signed an open letter calling for British withdrawal from the European Union, highlighting a division with large companies over membership of the bloc.
The letter, published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper Thursday, said voters in the June 23 referendum need to hear from “the incubators for tomorrow’s success stories,” not just “a minority of managers from Britain’s largest companies.”
“Our businesses thrive because we instinctively understand that flexibility and adaptability are key to our long-term success,” the signatories said. “We employ the majority of the U.K.’s workforce. As entrepreneurs, we deal with the EU’s constant diet of unnecessary regulations which add to our cost base, reduce our bottom line, and raise prices for our customers for no return.”
Organized by the Leave.EU campaign and signed by business owners including taxi companies and catering outlets as well as a comedy hypnotist, the call is in part a response to a letter from the bosses of 36 FTSE 100 companies last week saying Britain should stay in the EU.
It reflects an image of the 28-nation bloc as a club for multinational companies while entrepreneurs are held back.
“We believe in the future of our country,” the small-business owners said. “We believe that our economy can do better and create more jobs, without being held back by the EU, thus we should vote to leave.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne urged businesses to back continued membership when he spoke Thursday at the British Chambers of Commerce annual conference in London. He attacked the arguments of anti-EU Conservative Party colleagues.
“We’ve had confusion heaped on confusion about what the alternative is to Britain’s membership of this reformed European Union,” Osborne said. “We need to ask ourselves questions about the alternatives. If we were to leave the EU, over 50 of our trade deals with other countries in the world would automatically fall and Britain would have to go off and try and negotiate 50 simultaneous trade deals, having not negotiated trade deals for more than 40 years, and that would take time.”
Close to half the 330 Conservative members of Parliament are backing a so-called Brexit. On Wednesday, Justice Minister Dominic Raab accused the campaign to keep Britain inside the EU of “scaremongering” after Cameron’s office published the third in a series of documents warning of the dangers of leaving. Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith described it as a “dodgy dossier.”
France raised the stakes by suggesting that thousands of asylum seekers currently camped near Calais might soon arrive in Britain if the U.K. leaves the EU. In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said a Brexit could scupper the agreement that allows Britain to carry out border checks on the French side of the English Channel and keep out unwanted migrants. He also pledged to welcome bankers fleeing London. Cameron and President Francois Hollande held talks in France Thursday.
German automaker BMW has meanwhile written to its British employees warning of the costs of leaving.
Speaking at the BCC conference, Business Secretary Sajid Javid explained why he was supporting staying in the EU, having started his political career by attacking it. “I have thought with my head. For business, for jobs, for growth, remaining in the EU is the best answer,” he said. “I have huge respect for people on both sides of the debate. I can see it’s a very difficult decision.”
John Longworth, director general of the BCC, said the decision for business was a hard one, but warned that Cameron’s strategy for keeping Britain in the EU could lead to a market crash.
“For the government to say it’ll be a disaster to leave is patently wrong. If there is a chance we will leave -- and there definitely is a chance we might -- that would be very bad for the U.K.,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “How is the government going to roll back from that when they’ve persuaded the markets, and the currency markets that it’s going to be a disaster and then the day after we leave they’re going to say ‘oh no, it’s not a disaster, it’s all OK.’”
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who appeared alongside Osborne at the BCC event, added his weight to the campaign for Britain to stay. Voting to leave “would not be a reasonable decision” as Britain would have to pay into the EU budget and accept freedom of movement to get access to the single market but would have no say in decision making, he argued.
“We would be happy if the British people would decide not to leave the EU,” he said as he emphasized how much the EU has benefited from “strong British leadership.” And how would Germany react if Britain leaves? “We would cry,” he said.