Referendum will have a “profound impact” on every aspect of UK life

With ten days to go before the European referendum, reporter Letitia Booty travels to Gateshead in the north east of England to explore the issues most important to small businesses. It is an area which faces very different challenges from other parts of the country, especially as it has a static population and higher dependency on exports.

The debate, organised by software solutions-provider Sage, kicked off with a vote to get the views of the room:

63% – Remain

15% – Leave

22% – Undecided

The Leave Camp says …

Andy Saunders, an accountant and tourism business operator, was clear about the main area of debate. “It’s about who controls Britain,” he said. Saunders wants the UK to collaborate and trade with Europe, but not be run by the EU. Instead, the UK should take control of its own trade agreements, borders, money and destiny – and ignore the naysayers that claim the UK cannot control its own affairs.

Viscount Matt Ridley, Conservative member of the House of Lords and also of camp-Leave, claimed that the EU is run in a top-down manner, stifling technological progress in Europe. “The modern world has access to shipping containers, budget airlines and the internet, making it simpler to do business with the rest of the world,” says Ridley. He called for the UK to “re-join the world and get out of a European backwater”.

The Remain Camp says …

Lucy Armstrong, chief executive of The Alchemists, kicked off the debate by establishing the parameters of her argument: “We are being asked something that will have a profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives,” she said. “We are being asked a very complicated question here. My answer as a middle aged woman might be different than if I were answering as a parent … So I will answer as an employer.”

Armstrong argued that the “overwhelming and compelling” argument for remaining in the EU is to give the UK a voice in helping to shape trade. “You influence people by talking to them… Don’t stand on the side lines and shout – you sure as hell don’t have influence then,” she said

Throughout history, Armstrong says, Europeans have been at each other’s throats, and for the past 40 years there has been co-operation within the European Union. There may be things that don’t suit the UK, but the positives outweigh the negatives, and you can’t pick and choose what aspects of a club’s rules you wish to follow.

Armstrong’s fellow Remain-supporter Herb Kim was keen to stress that his main argument for remaining in the EU was to maintain the UK’s image of openness and tolerance, and suggested a Leave vote would look like it is turning its back on Europe.

However, Kim also claimed to be “deeply sympathetic” to the Leave campaign, and claimed that its supporters are often unfairly painted as bigoted. He suggested that there should be a third option to “try and fix” the EU, or perhaps vote to remain with the option of holding a second referendum in four years or so. He almost hoped for a vote that is “nail-bitingly close” to send Europe the message that things have to change.

The debate

The chair, Steph McGovern from BBC Breakfast, asked Kim whether another referendum in four years would be wise – given the uncertainty the UK economy has already faced.

Kim re-iterated his message that Europe needs to be sent a message that the UK is serious about calling for change. What the debate needs, he says, is more political support to change the nature of our membership to the EU – it should not be a simple in/out vote.

Armstrong jumped in to defend the EU against the claim made by Saunders that the UK lacks control over its own policies. The UK’s elected representatives speak on our behalf in Brussels, and we have a vote in this referendum as we do in national and local elections. Therefore, Armstrong says, we add value to the EU.

She argues that the UK should remain a part of Europe largely to maintain its influence in the continent. It is influencing as much as it is influenced.

There were then questions from the floor.

Do we need trade deals?

While the panel seemed to be in agreement that we need trade deals, there was some disagreement over how they should be handled. Ridley claimed that most countries have more trade deals that are better than the ones Europe has negotiated. It takes “agonisingly long” to negotiate the whole of the EU with other countries, he says.

The Remain panellists argued differently, and Armstrong highlighted that, as the UK has not negotiated a trade deal on its own for 40 years, there could be unforeseen difficulties. Certainly, as Armstrong sees it, the UK will pack less of a punch on its own – a small island negotiating on its own behalf without the weight of a whole continent behind it may be lower on other countries’ priorities.

What happens to funding from the EU for businesses if we vote Leave?

As with so many questions surrounding the European referendum, the answer from all the panellists was essentially: “We don’t know.”

Ridley claimed that every penny businesses receive from the EU started here, went to the EU and came back minus a “large chunk”.

Kim, a Remain panellist, agreed that to an extent the EU is allowed to plan the UK’s economic development.

The Leave panellists argued that if the UK held on to that money in the first place, it could be better redistributed.

Saunders voiced concerns that “more deprived” countries might join the EU and might lay claim to some funding. He would like to see that money going into UK-based projects, like improved broadband.

However, Armstrong was quick to point out that EU subscription makes up 0.6% of the UK’s budget, and we don’t even know where that reclaimed money would go, she said, adding that we don’t know what a national government’s priorities would be, but we do know that the EU has measures in place to ensure that small businesses have access to a certain amount of funding.

What would the North-East look like five years after Brexit?

Saunders answered with no hesitation: “Stronger and wealthier.” He claims the UK would have trade deals in place with Singapore, China, Malaysia, Australia etc. He believes the North-East would have its share of trade.

However, the other panellists referred once again to the uncertainty surrounding the issue. Armstrong said that “in the context of how profound this decision is, five years is a blip.” It will be two or three generations before we see the long-term impacts of this referendum, she said.

Final verdict

As the debate drew to a close, the room was asked once again to vote. The new figures showed that while the majority of the audience were voting to Remain, the Leave panellists had persuaded a healthy chunk of the audience to their way of thinking.

58% – Remain

27% – Leave

14% – Undecided