PRIME MINISTER David Cameron is playing a high-stakes game over Britain’s membership of the European Union that could damage the prospects of Merseyside firms, business leaders are warning.
Yesterday, Mr Cameron delivered his eagerly-awaited EU speech in central London and promised an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017 if the Conservatives win the next general election.
Mr Cameron said the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election will ask for a mandate to negotiate a “new settlement” for Britain in Europe, which will be put to voters in a referendum within the first half of the five-year Parliament.
But the Prime Minister said he will campaign “with all my heart and soul” for Britain to stay in the European Union when the referendum comes.
Some business leaders in Merseyside and the North West gave the speech a cautious welcome with one describing it as “statesman-like”.
However, others warned that the ensuing uncertainty in the run up to the election and possible referendum could be potentially damaging for local firms that depend on trade with Europe.
Paul Hyland, a partner at one of Liverpool’s leading accountancy firms, Duncan Sheard Glass, told Post Business: “It was a finely balanced speech but one which will send shivers down the spine of any business which depends on access to the single market – a market which is, let us remind ourselves, our biggest single trading partner.
“Many will think the commitment to a referendum creates additional uncertainty in an already deeply uncertain world.
“Many, many businesses in Liverpool depend entirely or largely on a European customer base. To jeopardise that market seems unwise, to say the least.”
Nigel Hibbert, executive director at Cheviot Asset Management in Liverpool, said it was right that the Prime Minister addressed the issue and added: “An optimistic view might be that Cameron’s approach will lance that boil – a pessimistic one that he has increased uncertainty for the many businesses which rely on Europe at a time when business remains very challenging.”
David Ost, North West region director of EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, also said it was right that Mr Cameron should seek a better deal with Europe, but added: “This strategy is not without risk.
“It is far from certain that the outcome of negotiations will be clear cut, meaning that greater uncertainty about UK membership – particularly for business – will prevail.”
Neil Sturmey, head of the Liverpool office of accountants Grant Thornton said there was a “lack of visibility” on the cost or benefits of staying in or leaving the EU.
He said: “It’s easy to see how an issue of this scale and importance, raised now, may feel like further uncertainty and an added complication at a time when businesses are craving simplicity, visibility and certainty.”