Business chief urges swift EU poll

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A business leader has called for a swift referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in order to avoid years of damaging uncertainty.

British Chambers of Commerce director-general John Longworth said the issue should be resolved one way or the other within 12 months of the general election in May.

Like the other main business organisations, the BCC is strongly in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EU.

But in an interview with the BBC, Mr Longworth said the country could not afford to wait until the end of 2017 - the final date by which David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum if the Tories regain power - to decide the matter.

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

“It should be no more than 12 months after the general election.”

In a speech to the BCC’s annual conference in London he will back the Prime Minister’s objective of the UK remaining part of a reformed EU.

“To those who believe that Britain is better served by disengaging, either from nearby trading partners, or from the pursuit of economic growth, I say that it is only if we deliver an open and enterprising economy that we will meet our aspirations, and it is only through growth that we will avoid becoming a Ruritarian backwater or a living museum,” he will say.

“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.

“More than any repatriation of powers, businesses want to know that the UK has safeguards against being drawn closer to the eurozone - especially as history tells us that currency unions inevitably fall apart unless there is real political, economic and social integration.

“Without true reform, business support for the European project is far from guaranteed. A new settlement for Britain in Europe is essential to achieving our economic ambitions - helping our businesses succeed here at home, and across the world.

“Above all, the debate over Europe must not be hijacked by political ideology. Economic pragmatism - what’s best for Britain, for British business, for our national growth ambitions - must win the day.”

Mr Longworth will also attack the UK’s “inadequate” system of business finance, describing it as a “chronic handicap” at the heart of the economy.

“There is no doubt that fixing the relationship between business finance and the rest of the economy is the key to so many of our aspirations,” he will add.

A number of political and business leaders will address the one-day conference.