How Should Businesses Navigate the Complex EU Referendum Debate?

29/10/2013 15:12 GMT | Updated 29/12/2013 10:12 GMT

David Cameron once famously promised not to "bang on about" Europe. But 2013 has been the year when the battle lines over Britain's future in the European Union hardened, forcing political and business leaders from across the spectrum to take sides on this issue.

Indeed, we've already seen the formation of two opposing campaigns representing what they see as UK businesses' best interests. On the one hand, Business for New Europe supports "the UK's membership of the EU and opposes withdrawal to the margins." On the other, Business for Britain supports a strong renegotiation of Britain's membership to boost growth and competitiveness.

To date these campaigns' key messages are being echoed by the mainstream politicians on either side of the divide. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg recently argued it would be "economic suicide" for Britain to leave the EU, and that three million Jobs depended on Britain's continuing membership. Meanwhile, the bosses of companies like M&S, Kingfisher and Diageo, recently published a report on behalf of the Government's "Business Taskforce" which claimed that cuts to EU red tape could save business billions.

But at some point between now and the proposed "in-out" referendum in 2017, the European debate in this country will become more substantive. And as the (many) remaining unanswered questions around the European issue resolve themselves, it will also become easier for companies to navigate, and shape, this complex issue, should they wish to.

For example, the Government is only half way through its two-year Balance of Competences review. These are comprehensive audits, on a department-by-department, policy-by-policy basis, of what the EU does, and how it affects the UK. The output will form the basis of the UK Government's renegotiation demands, and represent just one way businesses and other organisations can contribute to and shape the agenda in this country.

Another route is to go to the press, and companies like Hitachi and Nissan have done so in recent weeks to warn against changes that could undermine their significant UK manufacturing interests. Others, notably those in the financial services sector, have preferred to work through membership organisations like the British Bankers' Association and TheCityUK, to argue against what they see as excessive EU regulation. Needless to say, because any UK proposals for change will need to be agreed by 26 other European leaders, organisations that are able to make their case in multiple ways and at both national and Brussels levels, will clearly be better placed than those that are not.

Having said all that, the Eurozone crisis remains unresolved, and the May 2015 election could see the UK's position change markedly, because both Labour and the Liberal Democrats remain supportive of the EU.

Because of these factors, the best course for the majority of businesses will probably be to find ways to remain above the fray while watching these variables play out. These and other issues will be discussed at an event featuring business and political leaders on either side of the debate.