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 theÂ Business for Britain movement.Â
LONDON — It's at the Goring Hotel, a symbol of eternal England and whereÂ Kate Middleton famously spent theÂ night before her wedding, that we meetÂ Alan Halsall, an industry titan who looks more like a gentleman farmer with hisÂ beige blazer andÂ plaid shirt.
Between meetings, the EuroscepticÂ whoÂ co-chairsÂ Business for Britain and also heads the nurseryÂ companyÂ Silver Cross Ltd.Â takesÂ some time to explain why he's so energized about the United Kingdom's impendingÂ referendum about whether to stay in or leaveÂ the European Union.Â Sipping his coffee, the contractor'sÂ refrain is familiar on this side of the Channel: Directives from BrusselsÂ asphyxiate companies and unnecessarily burden executives withÂ 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 andÂ Goldman Sachs are content with the present situation, but he notes that plenty of other CEOs are of a different mind: small businessesÂ 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 millionÂ per year, and he says he'sÂ co-chairingÂ Business for Britain to defend smallÂ 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,Â has been awaiting this referendum for a long time, though he's onlyÂ supporting the Brexit solution should the EU governing apparatus in Brussels fail to offer the UK some concessions.Â "We are not theÂ UK Independence Party, and we want to help the government," he says.
What HalsallÂ is demanding —Â and he'sÂ not alone —Â is that relations between the EU and the UK be renegotiated. Likewise,Â Sir Anthony Bamford, a major donor to the Conservative Party and owner of JCB, aÂ multinational corporation specializing in construction equipment,Â says that ifÂ Cameron fails to convince BrusselsÂ toÂ 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 beÂ non-partisan, though many sympathizers are openly Conservative. Halsall explains that theÂ group "is exclusively funded by those who support our cause."
Among its most powerful weapons isÂ 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 isÂ Ian Cheshire,Â CEO ofÂ multinational retail companyÂ Kingfisher, and Lord Wolfson, head of clothes retailer Next, who is a member of Open Europe,Â aÂ thinkÂ tank that believesÂ the status quoÂ isn't an option.Â
Halsall says his members are firmly grounded.Â "We represent companies from all over the UK," he notes.Â "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 freeÂ trade and a reduced political union —Â more authority for Westminster, not for Brussels."
Managing on their own
The group claims thatÂ nearlyÂ 65% of allÂ legislation that has been sent to the British parliamentÂ since 1993 has been influencedÂ by the EU. To rally even more people to its cause, the movement raises theÂ topic of VAT (Value-Added Tax, or consumption tax).Â Its members believe Brussels is pressuring London to give up its low tax rates,Â potentially harming the purchasing power of Britons in the process. As it is,Â British people pay 346 euros ($381) toward the European budget each year,Â 110 euros ($121) more than the EU average.
Halsall is confidentÂ in Britain's ability to thrive outside of the EU, especiallyÂ againstÂ the backdrop of a globalized market. He denounces the over-alarmist stance ofÂ opponents who are tryingÂ 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 rankedÂ the UK as theÂ fifth-largest economy, while France dropped to sixth. HalsallÂ believesÂ commerce and free trade agreements with thriving economies such asÂ ChinaÂ or IndiaÂ wouldÂ be easier to obtain once outside of the EU. As a bonus, the country wouldÂ be able to remove certain rules that he believes hinder its growth.
Problems don't stemÂ exclusively from Brussels. HalsallÂ also hasÂ beef with the French. "We had to take back all of our products,Â whichÂ cost us a few thousand pounds," he says.Â His company Silver Cross was attempting to export its high-endÂ 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."