Business

It's crucial to promote debate and awareness on EU vote

Peter Burnside

LAST week BDO Northern Ireland, in partnership with the CBI, hosted an important seminar on the vital issue of the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union.

In our view it is not an exaggeration to say Brexit is one of the most important issues that the business community faces right now.

The uncertainty which would follow a 'Yes' vote along with the potential implications of Britain leaving the EU mean that every single person who votes must do so in as fully informed a way as possible, and that applies to businesses as much as anyone, possibly more so. That is why events like last week’s are so important. We want to be part of as wide and constructive a debate as possible.

The mood among our client base and other businesses in Northern Ireland is very clear - an EU exit raises more questions that it does answers, and that fear of uncertainty applies to small businesses, large businesses, EU exporters as well as those whose trade is mainly within the UK, and even extends beyond the private sector and includes third sector organisations.

That uncertainty is a real factor, the business community is often comfortable with the status quo and those who advocate an EU exit have yet to come up with a viable alternative that the entrepreneurs and business managers can study, get used to or approve of. Indeed planning for a post exit UK seems to be non existent.

Separate trade deals with existing EU member states may be possible but will take a long time to negotiate and agree, perhaps leading to a decade of instability where ‘unknowns’ dominate. That does not facilitate proper business planning.

Meanwhile for our EU based competitors whose future membership is not in doubt, it's ‘business as usual’ which gives them an immediate and lasting advantage. That is not a strong position to be in.

Like other economies the UK, including Northern Ireland, is emerging from the global downturn and, we hope, into a lasting economic recovery. That is not certain however and even as recently as last week during the presentation of the budget, it was reinforced that international economic factors are not stable.

It may be the case that there could be a less appropriate time to engineer a debate and a referendum about our membership of the EU and the trade associations and agreement that go along with that, but I struggle to think of one.

Voter apathy and a low turnout may be a decisive factor come June 23, and that is why for business representative bodies and those, like BDO, who advise businesses, it is crucial to promote and facilitate debate and awareness over the next 12 weeks.

Of course, people should vote and they should do while in possession of the full facts of the implications of an exit.

:: Peter Burnside is managing partner of BDO Northern Ireland

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