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North East business leaders debate EU membership at Journal event

Business leaders from around the North East have gathered at a Square One Law sponsored event to debate the major issues surrounding Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Following Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement of renegotiated terms and the setting of June 23 as the date for the referendum, a six-strong panel representing both the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps shared their views on everything from the future of trade agreements through to immigration and the politics of the EU campaigns.

The event, organised by the The Journal and its sister paper The Gazette, also gave audience members the chance to pose their own questions and included several polls to gauge the dominant feelings of the room.

Following an introduction from Journal business editor, Graeme Whitfield, proceedings kicked off with an address from guest speaker, Dean Turner, UK economist at UBS Wealth Management.

Mr Turner told those gathered that, in the wealth management group’s view, the chance of Brexit currently stood at around 30% – although the final outcome would be dependent on how the “don’t knows” were swayed.

Should Britain remain part of the European Union, there would some fluctuation in the economy before it settled back down, he added. If it left, however, recession was possible and, while things would pick up, long-term growth potential may be hampered.

Representing the case for remaining in the EU, Lucy Armstrong, chief executive of The Alchemists, said that, given the North East’s reliance on exports, personal feelings mattered less than responsibility to employees and the wider region.

“Most private businesses in the North East have a higher proportion of exports than elsewhere,” she said. “Exporting is the primary reason why entrepreneurial businesses are able to grow.”

Gillian Marshall, chief executive of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, pointed out that the North East had benefitted a great deal over the years from the European Union and there could be no guarantee of continuing this level of support in the event of Brexit.

Businesses also needed more information on how the Northern Powerhouse agenda could be impacted by the outcome, she said.

Neil Warwick, a partner at Square One Law, meanwhile, pointed out the immense bargaining power of the EU and the dozens of agreements that the UK would be leaving behind by exiting.

Jonathan Arnott, UKIP MEP for the North East, however, said fear of Brexit had led to misunderstandings, and that withdrawing from the EU would not remove trade opportunities.

“But we should be global,” he said. “I don’t want to see Britain isolated from the rest of the world. It’s a globalist view, not an isolationist one.”

There was a danger, he added, of crediting the EU with more than it had actually achieved while ignoring the negatives.

“The EU only moves in one direction; that is towards greater integration and more and more regulation,” he said.

“There is very little that comes back in the opposite direction.”

Andrew Saunders, North East chairman of Business for Britain – a campaign for the UK to leave the EU – was similarly critical of the status quo, suggesting the Prime Minister should have looked to full-scale reform of the EU structure, rather than to “fairly feeble” attempts to sway public opinion.

When the audience’s opinions were gauged, 70% said they wished the UK to remain in the EU, 14% were in favour of an exit and 16% were still undecided.

On the question of whether the Prime Minister’s renegotiation had impacted how they intended to vote, 11% said it had, 75% said it had not and 14% said they did not know.

The final poll of the morning examined Conservative in-fighting and whether it was a distraction from the main issues under debate.

Just over half (56%) agreed it was a distraction, 35% did not believe this was the case and 9% were unsure.

The EU business breakfast, which took place at Hardwick Hall in County Durham, was organised with support from associate sponsor UBS and support sponsor Square One Law.

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