Graeme Whitfield: I haven't met anyone in business who wants to leave the EU

The business editor of The Journal on how the vote on staying in the EU might be won

Graeme Whitfield
Graeme Whitfield

When people ask me why I became business editor of The Journal, I always tell them: free lunches.

It isn’t actually true, but it occasionally gets a chuckle and besides, it’s better than saying “I’m really passionate about business” and sounding like a contestant from The Apprentice.

Having said that, I have been invited to a couple of rather pleasant lunches in the last few weeks that were, since you ask, free.

Both lunches were attended by a cast of business and civic leaders with lots of intelligent things to say. And me. And at both lunches, our meal was followed by a round table discussion on matters of the day, particularly pertaining to the economy.

One issue arose at both occasions: Europe. As I wrote last week, the starting gun on the EU referendum has already been fired and you can expect two years of campaigning from both sides. (As a fairly shallow man with a short attention span, I’m not sure I can take two years of the same argument, but it looks like I ain’t got much choice.)

What is perhaps noting is that, at neither of these lunches, did anyone make the argument for leaving the EU. Indeed, since I became business editor last year and entered into this wonderful world of paid-for meals, I haven’t heard a single business person in this region making an anti-European case.

Perhaps the anti-Europeans are like the much-discussed “shy Tories”, the people who told the pollsters one thing up until election day then went into the polling booth and did the opposite.

Certainly there are people who want to be out of Europe, and many of them in the North East. Millions of people voted UKIP earlier this month and the party came second in 10 North East seats.

So the vote is far from a done deal and it is clear that David Cameron – already racking up air miles in a round of meetings with European leaders – is not holding back on the reforms he thinks can help him win it.

Whether he can achieve that is another matter. Voices from the continent that were not massively receptive to the idea of change before the election are not a tad friendlier, a sign perhaps that the EU needs the UK as much as we need it.

It seems unlikely that Mr Cameron will get many (if any) European leaders to budge the basic principle of free movement around the EU. It is the essential tenet on which the union is based.

So there will be voters in 2017 who will vote no (just as there are some who are already in the yes camp and don’t need any reforms to be pro-European). Those in the middle will need Mr Cameron to wring at least concessions out of his European counterparts to vote yes.

But my fellow lunch guests can perhaps be heartened by the fact that Mr Cameron is on a winning streak. He won the Scottish independence referendum and he won the General Election – in both cases not by much, but a win’s a win.

Graeme Whitfield is business editor of The Journal

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