BY Itrat Bashir

With small businesses identified as a key swing vote in the coming EU referendum, both campaigns had on June 13 gone head-to-head to make their pitch directly to small firms during a debate hosted by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

Leaders in both campaigns were grilled by an audience of FSB members, facing questions from small business owners from right across the UK, all wanting to know the impact on their business of staying in, or leaving the EU.

An FSB poll found two fifths (42 percent) of small business owners could still be swayed on how to vote on June 23. With over half (52 percent) saying they didn’t feel they had the information they needed, the debate was wide open for the panellists to tell small businesses what they needed to hear.

Commenting following the discussion, Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, said that what’s clear from the debate is that there will be no status quo, whatever the result, they can expect to see changes to our relationship with the EU.
“Small firms want to know more about what these will be and how they will impact their business, yet many questions throughout the campaign has proven either unanswerable or heavily disputed,” he added.

According to him, throughout the campaign they have worked hard to uncover the facts, check the truth behind the arguments, and give their members the best tools available to make up their own minds. Whatever happens next week, small firms will need sustained support to deliver the growth and stability both campaigns have promised will come after voting date.

Meanwhile, during the debate, John Longworth, Chairman of the Vote Leave Business Council, said that if the UK leave the EU its economy will be better off. “If we can shave off just a fraction of the cost of EU red tape we can deliver a huge boost to the economy, even if we are left with no access to the single market at all. The single market is a mirage, not a nirvana, but of course we well get a deal,” he added.

According to him, government ministers have to go to the EU with a begging bowl just to change the VAT on tampons. If we leave the EU we will be able to take control of our own tax and trade; setting our own rules to support UK businesses.

In contrast, Richard Reed, Deputy Chairman of Britain Stronger in Europe, said that the idea that leaving the EU will help our exports is total fiction. “Right now we can trade freely with the largest trading block in the world. Leaving would only result in more barriers to trade, not fewer,” he added.

He also said that having unfettered access to the largest trading block on the planet is unquestionably good for businesses; inward investment is already being affected by this debate. “We only need to look at what’s happening to the markets right now to see what will happen if we leave,” he added.
Conservative MP and Brexit supporter Kwasi Kwarteng pointed out that everyone agrees the EU has massive problems and we’ve been talking about reforming it for over twenty years, but nothing ever happens. “The only way we are ever going to get real change is a vote to leave,” he added.

According to him, the EU is the slowest growing economy in the world. The idea that this is the best place for the UK and economic growth is simply not true. To answer your question, and to be totally candid, the biggest risk to leaving is a short term market shock. But the biggest risk to remaining are fundamentally long term and come from being tied to the troubled economies of the EU with no room for independent action.

Chuka Umunna, a Lablour MP and campaigner of ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’, said: “The biggest regulatory issues facing businesses in recent years have been the national living wage and auto-enrolment, both nothing to do with the EU. The EU has become the dumping ground for blame for barriers to business, which are almost always issues originating with the UK government.”

He also said that there is not one respected, well known economic forecaster who thinks leaving the EU is going to be good for the UK economy. “Stay or leave, the main global challenges facing the UK, terrorism, climate change or migration, will still remain. I believe that the UK will be better placed to face these challenges with a seat at the table in the EU, not left out in the cold,” he added.