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Why Some British Businessmen Are Turning Pro-Brexit

Unlike most leaders of finance and commerce in The City, leaving the EU is not a frightening thought for the Business for Britain movement.Â

London's Millenium Bridge
London's Millenium Bridge
Marie-Hélène Martin

LONDON — It's at the Goring Hotel, a symbol of eternal England and where Kate Middleton famously spent the night before her wedding, that we meet Alan Halsall, an industry titan who looks more like a gentleman farmer with his beige blazer and plaid shirt.

Between meetings, the Eurosceptic who co-chairs Business for Britain and also heads the nursery company Silver Cross Ltd. takes some time to explain why he's so energized about the United Kingdom's impending referendum about whether to stay in or leave the European Union. Sipping his coffee, the contractor's refrain is familiar on this side of the Channel: Directives from Brussels asphyxiate companies and unnecessarily burden executives with bureaucracy and paperwork.

"We keep hearing the same people over and over about European subjects," Halsall says, implicitly targeting the BBC, his nemesis. He's not surprised that the CEOs of Nissan, BP and Goldman Sachs are content with the present situation, but he notes that plenty of other CEOs are of a different mind: small businesses in particular, and namely those that are subject to European regulatory policies even though they don't work with any EU member countries.

Restaurant owners, for instance, believe that nitpicky European policies cost them $304 million per year, and he says he's co-chairing Business for Britain to defend small businesses.

A few weeks ago, the movement was still lacking in organization and media coverage, mostly because it was overshadowed by the general election in which Prime Minister David Cameron was reelected. Halsall, 61, has been awaiting this referendum for a long time, though he's only supporting the Brexit solution should the EU governing apparatus in Brussels fail to offer the UK some concessions. "We are not the UK Independence Party, and we want to help the government," he says.

What Halsall is demanding — and he's not alone — is that relations between the EU and the UK be renegotiated. Likewise, Sir Anthony Bamford, a major donor to the Conservative Party and owner of JCB, a multinational corporation specializing in construction equipment, says that if Cameron fails to convince Brussels to renegotiate, the United Kingdom should leave the EU.

Business for Britain, which has more than 1,000 members, was launched two years ago and claims to be non-partisan, though many sympathizers are openly Conservative. Halsall explains that the group "is exclusively funded by those who support our cause."

Among its most powerful weapons is Matthew Elliot, one of Westminster's most most skilled lobbyists who has been described as a "formidable activist and propagandist." Also among the Eurosceptic elite is Ian Cheshire, CEO of multinational retail company Kingfisher, and Lord Wolfson, head of clothes retailer Next, who is a member of Open Europe, a think tank that believes the status quo isn't an option.Â

Halsall says his members are firmly grounded. "We represent companies from all over the UK," he notes. "Most of them are SME small and medium-sized enterprises, but some bigger ones as well. The SME owners have to live every day with the superimposed European decisions from high up. We want more extended free trade and a reduced political union — more authority for Westminster, not for Brussels."

Managing on their own

The group claims that nearly 65% of all legislation that has been sent to the British parliament since 1993 has been influenced by the EU. To rally even more people to its cause, the movement raises the topic of VAT (Value-Added Tax, or consumption tax). Its members believe Brussels is pressuring London to give up its low tax rates, potentially harming the purchasing power of Britons in the process. As it is, British people pay 346 euros ($381) toward the European budget each year, 110 euros ($121) more than the EU average.

Halsall is confident in Britain's ability to thrive outside of the EU, especially against the backdrop of a globalized market. He denounces the over-alarmist stance of opponents who are trying to scare Brexit supporters. "I would prefer if we stayed in the European Union, but if we do not get the reforms that we want, I'm not worried," he says. "We are the world's sixth-largest economy."

In January, the European Commission actually ranked the UK as the fifth-largest economy, while France dropped to sixth. Halsall believes commerce and free trade agreements with thriving economies such as China or India would be easier to obtain once outside of the EU. As a bonus, the country would be able to remove certain rules that he believes hinder its growth.

French protectionism

Problems don't stem exclusively from Brussels. Halsall also has beef with the French. "We had to take back all of our products, which cost us a few thousand pounds," he says. His company Silver Cross was attempting to export its high-end strollers to the French market but couldn't because of what he perceives as French protectionism.

He is certain that his strollers fit the European norms, but he couldn't get in because France threw up obstacles. "It is legal, of course," he says. "I should have known, but I thought we were engaging in free trade. It wasn't the case."

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