Everyone has an opinion about what the UK should do in the Brexit referendum, though in the case of business it’s fiercely contested what that opinion actually is. But Britain is in the unusual position of not yet knowing either when the referendum will be or indeed on which side their Prime Minister will campaign.
By the end of this year, the latter question should have been answered. Cameron has published a letter to the European Council president Donald Tusk that finally lays out his terms for renegotiating Britain’s membership.
In a speech at Chatham House accompanying the letter, he said that he expects the terms to be met – EU reform is ‘mission possible’ (cringe) – and will campaign ‘with all my heart and soul’ if they are, but hasn’t ruled out campaigning for a Brexit should they fall on ‘deaf ears’.
He has four broad (some would say vague) proposals: protecting non-euro members from discrimination, creating a ‘target to cut the burden of regulation on business’, ending Britain’s commitment to ever closer union and restricting access to in-work benefits for EU migrants.
‘Our concerns really boil down to one word: flexibility,’ Cameron said. There is plenty of support for a more flexible EU within Europe, and few other nations would like to see Britain leave. But whether they will seriously entertain revising or amending some of the EU’s core principles and treaties over what they may well see as a British bluff remains uncertain.
Cameron might get agreement on some of his proposals, but not others. The least likely to make headway is the last one, concerning immigration, which appears to threaten Europe’s cherished freedom of movement. What would he campaign for then? Just as importantly, how would that affect the position of business?
Most business opposition to EU membership is based either on non-business causes or on opposition to EU red tape. Few would be opposed to membership purely for the effect immigration has on their trade. But in either case, any acceptance of reform by Europe is likely to boost the stay campaign. People fear drastic changes sufficiently that even small concessions can go a long way. On the other hand, given the hard line Europe took at the negotiating table with Greece earlier this year, even that might be too much to expect.