U.K. Must Negotiate for Better Deal With EU, Business Lobby Says

The U.K. must renegotiate its relationship with the European Union, according to a business lobby group set up to campaign for such changes before the country’s planned referendum on membership in the bloc.

Business for Britain today published a list of 500 executives from large and small companies backing a mission statement that endorses the government’s goal of pursuing a “new deal,” though stops short of specifying an opinion on the vote. Signatories include the chief executive officers of Kingfisher Plc and Next Plc.

The move shows how the terms of public debate on the EU are evolving before the referendum that Prime Minister David Cameron pledged in January. He proposed then to put the question to a popular vote by the end of 2017, if re-elected in two years and once he has negotiated a return of some powers to the U.K. Cameron has said that he wants the country to remain an EU member.

“There are those who claim that Britain should supinely accept its fate without trying to negotiate, and others who say we should leave the EU tomorrow,” Business for Britain CEO Matthew Elliott said in an e-mailed statement. “The most sensible approach -- the one that Business for Britain is pursuing -- is to build support within Britain to empower our politicians to go out and get a better deal.”

Signatories include Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, Europe’s biggest home-improvement retailer, and Simon Wolfson, CEO of Next, the U.K.’s second-largest clothing retailer after Marks & Spencer Group Plc. Former M&S CEO Stuart Rose also backed the statement along with Richard Burrows, chairman of British American Tobacco Plc, the maker of Lucky Strikes.

Devolved Powers

“A flexible, competitive Europe with more powers devolved from Brussels is essential for growth, jobs and access to markets,” the executives said. “We therefore welcome the launch of Business for Britain’s campaign for real change in the EU and urge all political parties to join in committing themselves to a national drive to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU.”

Petros Fassoulas, chairman of the European Movement, a pro-EU campaign group in the U.K., criticized the Business for Britain agenda.

“It is an illusion to believe that, at a time when the EU is dealing with issues of an existential nature, its members should indulge one of their peers in its wish to renegotiate its membership responsibilities,” he said in an e-mail. “What Mr. Elliott perceives as an ‘unhappy marriage’ is a series of contractual commitments the U.K. and its EU partners have made to each other, voluntarily and with the consent of Parliament.”

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