Businesses need to come out from under the parapet now and throw their weight behind the EU, according to CBI president Sir Mike Rake. The BT chairman will rally the troops tonight at the lobby group’s annual dinner – and any companies that care about the UK’s place in the single market should heed the call.
‘The time has come to turn up the volume,’ Rake will say later. ‘Speaking out clearly and in a language which people can understand.’
‘The question is not whether the UK would survive outside the EU, but whether it would thrive,’ the outgoing president will argue, in a not-so-veiled dig at JCB chairman Lord Bamford, who said earlier this week we could do just fine by ourselves.
‘No-one has yet set out a credible alternative future to EU membership. The current alternatives are not realistic options – little or no influence and the obligation to comply with EU principles whilst still paying most of the costs.’
That doesn’t mean Rake and the CBI are happy with the EU in its current form – in fact he’ll say ‘the moment is ripe’ for change. ‘Reform will not happen overnight. But by working with our allies on an ambitious – yet achievable – agenda, we can make it a reality.’
And there are some good signs on that front. European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans has committed to cutting red tape in a move towards so-called ‘Better Regulation’, and he’ll find a ready partner in the energetic new Thatcherite business secretary Sajid Javid. Meanwhile, Downing Street is already coordinating efforts to make sure most of business gets behind staying in the EU, according to the FT, having learnt from the slapdash, last minute approach to the Scottish referendum last year.
But business is not one homogenous mass. It’s not just Bamford – only 55% of British Chambers of Commerce members are in favour of a ‘reformed Europe,’ its director John Longworth said yesterday.
And Rake and his successor will have to fight hard to drag business leaders into the political limelight. Vodafone’s chief exec Vittorio Colao said yesterday it was in the interests of its customers and shareholders for the UK to stay in the EU, but then came the disappointment: ‘I don't think it's the role of businesses to campaign if i'm honest… I don’t campaign, I don't take sides.’ Shame.