BOTH sides in the debate over Britain’s relationship with the EU have been “twisting figures” in the run-up to the referendum, according to a leading figure at a business lobbying group.
Allie Renison, the head of EU and trade policy at the Institute of Directors (IOD), said the EU referendum had become a “black and white campaign” where it was not in either campaigns’ interest to concede ground.
The IOD, which is taking a neutral stance, held an EU referendum roadshow in Leeds, as part of a programme to inform members about how the referendum could affect them.
Ms Renison, who was a member of the panel, provides advocacy for the IoD on a range of regulatory issues in Brussels. She was previously research director at Business for Britain, which focused on renegotiating the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Commenting on the quality of debate over the referendum, she said: “There’s been a lot of twisting of figures on both sides. The way that trade has been handled on both sides of the debate leaves a lot to be desired.”
She said this was one of the reasons why the IOD was holding debates about the EU referendum around the country “to get away from the politics and really focus on the practicalities”. In particular, Ms Renison said the debates could analyse whether Brexit might affect a company’s operations and profits.
She added: “The unfortunate thing for the ‘in’ side is that to be able to talk about the benefits of the EU, in a context of a referendum where a choice is about whether to stay or leave, you almost, by default, have to talk about what the threat to those benefits are.”
She said a similar pattern had emerged in the Scottish referendum, where many people who were opposed to independence had focused on the benefits that they believed could be lost if Scotland became independent. Ms Renison said that in the bigger trade associations “barring one or two exceptions” the majority of members are in favour of staying in the EU. However, this was nowhere near the level of business support for the “in” campaign that existed at the time of the last European referendum, which was held in 1975.
She added: “The difference is, not only was the UK at that point the sick man of Europe, but it was just a common market... People who are older, not only can they remember what life was like before they joined a project of European integration, but they also have the benefit of seeing it evolve. And that’s where all the criticism comes in.
“The EU has expanded through various rounds of treaty change into something which is much more of a political force... it’s not just a trading bloc.
“That’s to some extent why perhaps you have a generational split in the numbers, because for a lot of young people being in the EU is tantamount to being in Europe, and older people can remember when being in Europe was not the same as being in the EU.”
She said her experience of dealing with the EU had given her ample opportunity for fact checking.
Although there was a lot of focus on the potential for “labour intensive negotiations” in the event of Brexit, “that’s a big job for the Government, that’s not a big job for business necessarily”.
Ms Renison added: “It’s unsurprising therefore that the Government is certainly in favour of staying in.”