THE BLOG
30/03/2015 18:42 BST | Updated 30/05/2015 06:59 BST

How Can the Business Community Get Its Act Together on Europe? Get the Politicians to Do Their Job

Business has a vital voice in the debate on Britain's relationship with Europe. Business leaders of small, medium and large enterprises have a critical role to play in persuading the political establishment and, through the media, voters, of the benefits to them and their employees of staying in Europe.

Already, many voices have been raised urging this course, claiming that the current debate imperils jobs and future prosperity by causing instability. They repeat the mantra that the EU is vital for British jobs, with most of our exports going to our neighbouring European countries. 4.2million jobs in the UK are, directly or through supply chains, linked to access to the EU market. They point to stand-out examples like Nissan in Sunderland with 6,000 direct jobs with above average salaries and another 2,000 in the supply chain and Hitachi Rail Europe with 500 construction jobs and another 730 good quality long-term jobs. And for companies like these, access to that EU market is a vital component in their business plans and their leaders have said so.

These messages are repeated regularly and aired in the FT or the letters pages of the broadsheet press. But there is a problem. So far organisations such as Business for Britain have sought to undermine these voices, condemning them as limited to big business and only delivered by leaders who are the very same fat-cats who wanted to join the euro. Worse, trade associations, large and small, make the economic case very well but are reluctant to engage further, citing the discomfort some of their members feel about exposing themselves politically. They feel the politicians should carry the burden of educating the public and that their sometimes reluctant organisations shouldn't.

The politicians meanwhile shrug and pass the buck back to business. The end result is that the wider political case is not made and the economic case is too narrow or complex to stand alone. It's like Rooney and Sterling looking at the ball expecting the other to run with it, only to find that Farage steals it and scores in their goal. To win a referendum you would need both players to work together. This is not currently happening with possible fatal consequences.

This is not the fault of the business community. The problem is that without a shared narrative which combines the political and the economic, the public reacts to the positive jobs creation stories of 'in' and the negative job destruction stories of 'out' with responses like "They would say that, wouldn't they" and "it's just scaremongering". Even in Business for Britain's survey last year we uncovered the bombshell that 50,000 business leaders said they would close on Brexit. Despite this, the 'outers' can still seize upon the public's hostility to the business establishment to stir doubt and drive a wedge through the very community which should be united.

But, the business community is not completely united. Across CBI, IOD and EEF surveys members break four to one in favour of staying in. However, those that wish to stay in are doing so very rarely from political passion. Most are centre-right. Some are sceptical about whether the economic roof will fall in on their businesses if Brexit happens. Some have further doubt as they sit in the golf clubs and around the dinner tables where their Faragiste acquaintances hold forth about immigrants. In short, the business phalanx that was crucial in the 1975 referendum on Europe is unsure, the public are agnostic and the politicians are absent.

Everyone will recall last September the rush of businesses in the last week of the Scottish referendum condemning independence. All agree their intervention was dangerously late and perhaps shrill. But they were, like in the Europe debate, doing the politicians dirty work for them. It was not the campaign that endangered the Union or the business voices which saved it. In the end, the reason why the Better Together campaign had to mount what was condemned as 'Project Fear' was that 20 years of politicians' silence on the reasons why the UK is a good thing left only 9% of people feeling any affinity to the UK. Business can't fill that vacuum.

This is even more tragic in the case of the UK's membership of Europe. British Influence would not welcome a referendum campaign based purely on tropes of economics and fear with business leaders, forced to pose as modern day Cassandras, sent over the top by a weak political class. To avoid this, we feel that business should get the politicians to do their job.

There is one way they can. The so-called Review of the balance of competences, hailed by William Hague in 2012 as the "most extensive analysis of the impact of UK membership of the EU ever undertaken", found that the UK is a leader in Europe, gets most of what it wants and said there was not one area with a case for full repatriation of powers back from Brussels. Businesses, amongst many other organisations, spent time and money on contributing the review only to find that all their work and £5million of taxpayer's money were effectively binned.

We demand for business leaders and all the other contributors to call for a full public discussion of these findings. We challenge the Taxpayers Alliance and Business for Britain to join us and other pro-European organisations to engage with this debate for the benefit of transparency and scrutiny.

It's high time for politicians and whatever government follows the election to come clean about the UK's relationship with Europe. The public are ignorant of this subject because, like in Scotland, the political classes fail to make a visionary and evidence-based case. It cannot be left to business alone.