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10 February 2015updated 12 Oct 2023 11:02am

The British Chambers of Commerce calls on government to bring forward the EU referendum to 2016

The director general of the BCC is urging politicians to call an EU referendum next year.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In the past week, political debate has been focused on business. Labour has been accused of being anti-enterprise as big business bosses have voiced their concerns about having Ed Miliband in No 10.

And as the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), a body that represents 92,000 businesses across Britain, holds its annual conference today, it seems to be landing another blow for Labour regarding business.

Its director general, John Longworth, will use his speech to the conference to argue for bringing the Tories’ promised 2017 EU referendum forward to next year.

He will voice his concern that the EU membership debate has been “hijacked by political ideology”, and told the BBC’s Today programme this morning:

We need to bring the referendum date forward because two-and-a half-years of uncertainty isn’t good for growth and investment.

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His argument is that a long period of uncertainty on the issue is damaging, so the sooner the country can vote in a referendum, the better. Longworth will voice his support for David Cameron’s plan to thrash out a new deal for our relationship with the EU:

Chamber members fundamentally support the prime minister’s objective of Britain in a reformed Europe. The next government must set out what it will do to protect the United Kingdom against the prospect of being in a club where all the decisions are made by, and for, the Eurozone.

Longworth’s comments spell bad news for Labour, as he is undermining the party’s stance against calling an EU referendum altogether:

If Labour forms an administration the uncertainty would not be diminished, they would be under huge pressure to have a referendum . . . business people would always be mindful of the possibility that there could be a referendum at some time.

Although it’s clear Longworth’s motive is for Britain to remain in the EU, and to settle the issue as soon as possible, this has clearly failed to translate into support for Labour, the only main Westminster party that has not promised a referendum. This is in contrast to the message of last year’s CBI conference in November, when its president Mike Rake told British business that the UK’s EU membership is key to Britain’s success:

Do not be fooled: by withdrawing from Europe we do not somehow become more open to trade elsewhere; instead we turn inwards, going against the grain of an increasingly connected world.

As well as making life difficult for Labour, which was treating its unique stance on the EU as its main trump card with business ahead of the election, it is also an awkward intervention for the Prime Minister.

David Cameron throughout this parliament has been under immense pressure from Tory backbenchers, particularly eurosceptics and those spooked by Ukip’s popularity, to bring an EU referendum forward. There was a contingent of MPs who called for the referendum to be held in 2014, who felt the prospect of a 2017 vote (depending on a Tory win) was a cop-out from the PM. Now that a business case has been made for bringing it forward, such politicians will feel emboldened.

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