British business may be unsure about a single currency and closer political union but, according to Management Today's latest poll of over 4,000 readers, it is strikingly pro-European.
Reports of our Euroscepticism have been greatly exaggerated. Management Today's poll of its readers' views on Europe revealed an overwhelmingly positive attitude among Britain's business community. The response was impressive, with replies coming from as far afield as the former Soviet Union. At the time of going to press well over 4,000 readers had completed and returned the questionnaire which appeared in our July issue. This represents an increase of 1,000 on our last survey three years ago and makes it the biggest-ever poll of Britain's business views on Europe.
The first and most general question, which asked readers to describe broadly their attitude to the EU, showed a clear percentage in favour, with those defining themselves as pro-Europe (63%) outnumbering the anti-Europeans (21%) by three to one. Answers were fairly polarised, with only 15% describing themselves as neutral, and a mere 1% who didn't know.
This surprisingly pro-European stance is explained by the findings of the next two questions. Forty-seven per cent of respondents found the single market beneficial to their businesses; a further 42% were neutral and, unexpectedly for a nation renowned for its Euroscepticism, a mere 8% - less than 1 in 12 - thought the single market harmful to their companies. The question which followed asked whether the single market had increased the costs of European trade. This elicited a more divided response, with no overall majority, but showed that less than a quarter of respondents felt that the single market pushed up their costs.
A similar warming to Europe was evident on the issue of a single currency. Though it is often thought to be a move most Britons oppose, our poll showed no overall majority: those against a single currency exceeded those in favour by the slimmest of margins. Perhaps in the light of this, John Major's position, seen by many as indecisive, is simply a reflection of public opinion. Political union, however, is still something we feel uncomfort able with, and this provoked by far the strongest showing for the anti-Europeans, who represented just under half the replies. Considering the icy reception which increased federalism still receives in Westminster, the 34% in favour is surprising in itself.
As might be expected, company size was an important - though not overriding - factor in the responses. Larger companies tended to be more pro-European than the average on all counts. Of the replies from companies whose turnover exceeded £500 million, for example, nearly 50% would like a single currency. This differential does not mean, however, that UK business harbours a contingent of 'small town' Eurosceptics - far from it. Respondents in favour - from companies with a turnover of less than £4 million - outnumbered those against by two to one. And in every category of company size those who described themselves as broadly pro-EU were in an overall majority. Furthermore, smaller companies gave the largest number of neutral responses to the questions relating to the single market's effect on their businesses, which is hardly surprising as they are less likely to operate on a multinational level.
The results of this survey reveal an appreciable change in opinion since we last polled our readers on Europe, three years ago. Then we asked for views on the Maastricht treaty and received a response hostile to the treaty itself and to both political and monetary union. Although not all the questions asked then and now are directly comparable, there has been a pro-European shift in responses: those opposed to a single currency have lost considerable ground, and even the thorny question of political union received a warmer response this time round, with those supporting it up from a quarter to just over a third.
The nature of Management Today's readership makes the survey the best guide to business's views on Europe. Other surveys, however, provide interesting comparisons. British business and industry is better disposed towards Europe than the population as a whole: a MORI poll in the The Economist showed that 60% of those interviewed would vote against a single currency in a referendum and only 29% would vote in favour. A Gallup poll of exporters was more in line with ours, with 40% believing that a single currency would improve prospects. A similar - though smaller - poll conducted by the CBI also showed broad support among the business community.
The differences of opinion between business and the rest of the country may amount to little more than a fear of the unknown: business men and women, particularly those with significant overseas markets, are likely to be better informed than the man in the street. This possible explanation is given credence by a recent Channel 4 survey which compared attitudes to Europe of a sample audience before and after discussion with speakers from both sides of the Euro debate. The results showed a remarkable shift towards Europe post-discussion.
Debate over Europe is likely to intensify. Next year's intergovernmental conference (IGC), where the Maastricht treaty will be reviewed and revised, should ensure that the European Union is never far from the public eye. Many EU members believe that the British government is so riven with schisms over Europe that any agreement from the IGC will have to wait for the outcome of the next general election.
With the Conservatives so bitterly divided, Labour are billing themselves as the pro European party - a position which could win them further support among a business community already questioning its traditional Tory allegiance. What emerges most clearly is that Britain's business is looking increasingly towards the Continent. Westminster Eurosceptics wishing to hold on to their seats would do well to take note.
How they voted in 1992
Management Today last polled its readers on Europe in September 1992. The focus then was on the recently signed Maastricht treaty. The poll showed a resounding belief that there should have been a referendum on the treaty, with 69% in favour. Had there been a referendum 68% would have voted against the UK signing. In terms of the treaty's specifics, the responses registered firm disapproval:
- 44% approved of economic and monetary union; 51% disapproved
- 25% approved of political union; 69% disapproved
- 33% approved of the Social Chapter; 55% disapproved
- 24% approved of institutional changes; 64% disapproved Although the questions were different, this year's results show a small but significant warming towards the treaty.