It is a critically important period for the British exhibition industry, as the country comes to its decision whether or not to stay in the EU. Alex Robertson, former managing director of JMT Indisplay gives his thoughts on the referendum.
Unlike the European elections, this poll is likely to be a hotly contested question, almost irrespective of what David Cameron manages or fails to negotiate for the UK, at the European Council in December.
To say that European Union membership is an emotive issue is a colossal understatement, and the passion that’s evident on both sides of this debate means that the national conversation about the EU isn’t likely to centre on rational and reasoned debate, when in reality that is exactly what it must do.
In 2017, either in May or September, the referendum will pose the question whether the UK should stay in the EU or rescind its membership in favour of a position like that of Norway or Switzerland. From my perspective, this will not be a difficult question – my cards are already on the table in this respect. I will be voting for the UK to remain in the EU, and I sincerely hope that everyone in the event and exhibition industry will be doing the same.
Everyone who intends to vote to stay in the EU must recognise the depth and breadth of anti-EU sentiment in the UK, and the valid reasons for it. The EU is a vast and wasteful bureaucracy, common agricultural and fishing policies are fraught with problems, the union’s accounts have not been signed off for 19 consecutive years and the European Commission remains an unelected and unaccountable body. The point to make here is that although there’s ample room for improvement and major reform, there’s only one place where Britain can help solve these problems and that’s from within the Union as a full member.
The positives arising from EU membership might not be as obvious as the problems, but that is largely because we have, over the last 40 years, come to take the benefits for granted. As a European company, JMT Indisplay has an EU wide organisation and an EU wide customer base. Well over half of our top customers are in mainland Europe, and the ease with which our workforce and stock can travel across European borders is central to our success. Harmonised employment and trade law across the continent gives us a broad and stable foundation for business. Even though Britain never joined the Euro, it has still been a huge advantage of the union to providing continentally consistent pricing and wages across the continent, without incurring exchange fees and falling foul of multiple currency fluctuations.
We’ve discovered that there are real challenges to working in Europe but outside the EU in places like Switzerland with its levies and import taxes on goods, services and even rental items. There’s little reason to believe the same would not hold true of European companies working in Britain after a British exit from the EU.
The free movement of people, goods and services across the whole union is a central tenet of the project and the single most valuable and prized advantage of being a member.
This means we can source the right personnel wherever we are in Europe, and take advantage of competition in the labour market at home.
Business depends on these freedoms. With English firmly ensconced as the international business language, Britain is the natural entry point into Europe for businesses in Canada, the US and Australia, and a popular one for businesses worldwide.
As the referendum nears, the voices for and against Britain remaining a member will become more shrill and urgent, with scare stories and appeals to emotion vying with one another to motivate the British public one way or the other. I’d urge everyone to ignore this cry, and focus on the practicals.
British exhibition businesses, especially those involved in working overseas, will suffer enormously if Britain leaves the EU. When the time comes in 2017, I hope you’ll vote for Britain to remain a member.
What do you think #eventprofs? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was first published in the November 2015 issue of Exhibition News.