By Andrew Lansley
Talking to a businessman the other day, he described the effect on his business of the uncertainty leading up to the Scottish Referendum. Every major decision had a 'what if?' scenario attached. Many decisions were put off to await the outcome.
How much more significant to many more businesses is the EU Referendum? The uncertainty will be acute for at least the next year. But the uncertainty over Britain's relationship with the EU would continue, and be a chronic problem, unless tackled. The negotiation for reform and a referendum is a means to end that uncertainty. To re-establish Britain's membership in a reformed EU, which has consistently been shown to be the preferred outcome of the majority of businesses in the British Chambers of Commerce EU barometer, is a prize worth fighting for.
Businesses do need to decide how to respond now to the impending referendum. As HMG negotiate, businesses interests should speak up for reform, for cutting regulatory costs, for more flexible labour markets,for free trade agreements, for completion of the Single Market, and for the protections needed against the abuses of free movement of labour, or to protect non-Eurozone members from discriminatory action by Eurozone members.
However the negotiations go, businesses must decide how then to act in the run-up to the Referendum vote. At elections, there are often good reasons to steer clear of politics. But a referendum is different. It isn't the political parties battling it out: the Conservatives and,potentially, part of Labour will be divided. This will be a contest of contrasting views of Britain's place in the world and, in particular, of our economic future. Business cannot be indifferent to that outcome.
Every business will take, should take, a hard-headed view of where the businesses' best interests lie. Look at where suppliers, investors, competitors and customers are and how they would respond. Brexit would offer no cosy certainties where access to markets, to customers, labour and capital, are essential to business growth.
Remember, this is business, it's not personal.Discard personal prejudices and consider your businesses' interest.
You may then want to take a public position and a direct part in the referendum campaign. There may also be safety in numbers. Trade Associations, Chambers of Commerce, CBI, IoD, FSB are all organisations whose value collectively to business should never be greater than now.
The public have the votes. The employees of businesses have their votes too and should know what the result means for their business. And Business has a voice and should not be deterred from using it. There can only be one of two results. A "no" would be the prelude to a negotiation to leave not a second referendum to stay. so time is pressing. I doubt a vote will come in June ( too soon after the May elections, too conflicting with the Queen's Speech and a key positive time for Government to control the agenda, too 'rushed'), but a September vote is a practical option following a June Council agreement.
Business needs to be ready and engaged. Starting now.