With just under a month to go before the EU referendum, we welcomed two political heavyweights to the Hastings Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast last week to tell us exactly what each referendum outcome could mean for the UK and for Hastings.
Local MP Amber Rudd spoke on behalf of the Remain campaign, while UKIP spokesman and MEP Roger Helmer spoke about the Brexit campaign’s anticipated opportunities and benefits of exiting.
Amber opened with a strong focus on the influential voice the UK has in Europe and the way we can use our power to affect how the EU moves forward. She focused on the uncertainty facing the country if we leave.
Roger’s address concentrated on how inward looking the EU is. He said: “Out is not about nostalgia, out is not a xenophobic choice. Out is taking a stand against uncontrolled immigration, out is taking control of our country and its people.”
The floor was then opened to questions. The first question – ‘would better negotiation by David Cameron of a new EU deal have helped the Remain campaign?’ – came from Sonia Blizzard” MD of Beaming.
Amber focused on the successes that arose from the renegotiation, specifically the recognition that references to ‘ever closer union’ do not apply to the United Kingdom, giving the UK special status within Europe.
She also spoke of the current refugee crisis and how it is the UK’s responsibility as a major world power to help, not to ‘turn the other cheek’.
Roger was highly critical of the renegotiation, saying even if 100% of the UK’s demands had been met, the renegotiation wouldn’t have gone far enough to make a difference.
Drew Knight, Head of Governance at General Dynamics UK, voiced the second question: “Business seems to be largely undecided, but it seems to me that big businesses are ‘in’ and smaller businesses are ‘out’. What is your take on this?”
Amber used her local knowledge to great effect, using Hastings company Plastipack as a prime example of a company based within the UK, but with 75% of sales being exported to the EU, making a strong trade alliance essential to its continued growth.
Amber also quoted CBI statistics, declaring that 80% of businesses favour continued EU membership.
The counter argument from Roger used JCB and Next as business examples. He stated that both companies are keen to leave the EU as Common External Tariffs are too costly. He believes that only a small percentage of British based companies export to the EU but that EU regulations stifle the growth of all British based companies equally.
Roger continued by pointing out the UK’s strong trade relationships with Russia, China and the USA, none of which are hindered by EU regulations.
Olly Dyer, from Dyer and Hobbis Chartered Surveyors, was keen to know: “Does Hastings directly benefit from EU membership?”
The comment from Roger was: “No, the cost of EU membership is a drag on everyone, immigration is dragging wages down, and regulation is crippling normal businesses.” Roger continued to say that: “Outside of the EU, Britain could enjoy cheaper energy prices, which would have a positive effect on businesses and individuals alike.”
Amber’s focus was on the jobs and opportunities that the UK enjoys as part of a larger EU community. The ability to develop business through trade and the positives of a stronger, more stable economy are all reasons to fight for continued EU membership. She believes that: “Roger is over optimistic; he paints a picture with no basis in fact. What exact bespoke renegotiation he imagines is anyone’s guess.”
The forth questions from Clive Galbraith Chairman of Green Insurance Group, was: “You both mention that we are currently weighed down by red tape and EU laws. What laws and regulations would be scrapped if the UK voted to leave?”
Roger specifically focused on the Agency Workers Directive. “Agency work used to be the route back into employment but the Agency Workers Directive changed that, reducing flexibility and having a negative effect both on workers and employers.”
Amber was less specific, but did state that a UK government would focus on supporting businesses and deregulation.
Peter Watters from McPhersons accountants, was keen to discover what life outside the EU would mean for migrants currently settled in the UK, asking: “If we vote to leave, do the EU migrants working and living here have to leave?”
Amber was quick to say that, although the specifics would need to be negotiated:, ”There would be no instant call for current migrant workers to vacate. There would be many factors in play, including, but not limited to, the individual’s access to work.”
Roger agreed, saying: “Nobody would be at risk of being thrown out, apart from terrorists.”
Luca Venditto, owner of The Italian Way chain of restaurants, queried: “should the result be a narrow win either way, will this not been seen as a hollow victory and possibly further referendums?’’”
Amber clarified that a win would be a win, so a margin, no matter how small, would be enough for that side to call themselves victors.
Roger, however, believed that a 60/40 split would need to be achieved before one side could be victorious. He warned that, if it is a close call, then the UK could be left will lots of disappointed and disillusioned voters. He also warned that an ‘in’ vote would result in a tsunami of regulation from the EU.
Roger did then allude to a new EU treaty that will need to be signed by each member state within the next ten years. If this is the case, he believes it could give the opportunity for a new referendum.
Luca followed up with an additional question, querying: “Which specific industries will prosper or falter if the UK leaves or stays?”
Amber believes that the UK is a springboard for development in the EU, with many companies choosing the UK as their base due to our strong European links. “If the public vote to leave the EU on the June 23, many of these businesses may face an uncertain future, perhaps deciding to move to a country located within the EU, therefore costing the UK jobs.”
Comments from Roger focused on the amount businesses are suffering due to EU regulation. He blamed this regulation, along with EU terms, for destroying jobs. He called for the UK to “get out of the EU and refocus on being a great global trading body.”
Alison Knoll from the Hastings Print Company got the last question asking ‘companies in the UK have some form of audit otherwise they are struck off, why have the EU figures not been signed off for at least 10 years?’’
Both sides agreed that the EU accounts, although qualified, need to be audited more tightly.
With the question and answer session over, Roger was first to give his closing address, with a strong focus on democracy. He quoted Anthony Wedgewood Benn, the renowned champion of the working class, saying: “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.” The EU leaders cannot be voted out and therefore the system currently governing the UK isn’t democratic.
Roger continued: ”Life outside of the EU means living in a democratic society, one that promotes voluntary intergovernmental cooperation. Britain should provide a shining example to the rest of the EU.”
Amber’s closing focused on how “EU membership gives the UK an amplified voice and sits us at the table as a leading power, deciding the future direction and focus.” She continued: “The UK has decades of diplomatic experience. We need to be at the table influencing and shaping the EU.”
We would like to thank both Amber and Roger for joining us and for answering questions with such detail and gusto. It was a very good natured debate and hopefully it helped the few undecided voters in the room to decide which way to vote.
In the days leading up to the referendum, voters will no doubt hear many arguments both for and against and undecided voters will probably continue to struggle with their all important decision. But, one thing’s for certain, this is one battle that is simply too close to call.