Stay or go? Small business views on the EU referendum

By Katie Prescott
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
Bethany Sawyer is CEO of Biopharm Leeches, one of the small businesses the BBC spoke to

From the beginning of the referendum campaign, both camps have been vocal on the business case for Britain's future in, or out, of the European Union.

The voice of big business has been particularly loud and you could be forgiven for thinking as a result that most UK companies back the 'remain' camp.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI),which represents some of the UK's biggest exporters, polled its members and found that 80% wanted to stay in Europe.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The 'remain' camp argues that British exports could suffer if we left the EU

The manufacturer's body EEF warned that Britain would step into an "abyss of uncertainty and risk" if it voted to leave.

Not clear cut

Yet the arguments aren't that clear cut. Both the Federation of Small Business (FSB) and the Forum for Private Business have refused to come out on either side.

Appealing to the small business vote, Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave's chief executive, said that "whilst the EU might be good for big multinationals, for smaller businesses it acts as a job destruction regulatory machine."

So what is the reality?

Well, while both campaigns claim to speak "for business", the business vote in the UK won't come from Canary Wharf's vast boardrooms, famous entrepreneurs or lists in the back of the Financial Times. The overwhelming majority of businesses in the UK, 99.9%, are considered 'small and medium sized enterprises' or SMEs.

On the ground

In the light of this, the BBC's Economics and Business Unit wanted to find out from these businesses how they felt about being in the EU.

We spoke to 20 businesses around the UK from different sectors, who we found through our regional correspondents, business groups and by word of mouth. It is by no means (and does not claim to be) a comprehensive survey, but it does give a real voice to companies who perhaps haven't had one so far in the campaign.

Some clear trends emerged among the businesses we spoke to.

For those who want to remain in the EU trade is a huge issue. Take ROVOP, a subsea company based in Aberdeen. They develop and deploy underwater robots to help offshore energy companies maintain their pipelines and platforms.

Three quarters of their work is outside the UK and mainly in Europe, so for their Chief Executive, Steven Gray, remaining is a no-brainer: "Europe is our biggest market so it's important we retain free and open access to those markets.

Image caption,
CEO of Acme Whistles Simon Topman: "I think we'd become more isolationist"

"We do operate in markets outside Europe and that is much more difficult, we have to deal with complex visa requirements and customs issues related to the movement of equipment."

Similarly Simon Topman, the Chief Executive of whistle manufacturer Acme Whistles told us: "I would far prefer that we stay in Europe, it's the biggest backyard market we have ever had and since we've been in Europe our turnover has doubled. I think we'd become more isolationist."

But there wasn't universal agreement. Stephen Britt who runs Anchor Storage near Felixstowe does most of his business with China and says that EU trade laws throw up barriers which make it harder to do business with the rest of the world.

Red tape

Of those who want to leave, many we spoke to were worried about coping with EU regulation.

Biopharm Leeches based in Hendy, South Wales breeds and sells medicinal leeches to hospitals around the world and has been the sole supplier of leeches to the NHS for the last thirty years. Chief executive Bethany Sawyer worries for the future of her business should the UK remain within Europe:

"I do think there's a definite move towards more and more EU medical device regulation. It would mean we face submitting massive amounts of paperwork to comply with EU medical supply regulations which is a considerable cost", she told us.

Image caption,
Bethany Sawyer's company has been the sole supplier of leeches to the NHS for the last 30 years

Julie Price who set up her insurance business in 1989 says that red tape has stifled her business and stopped her from growing as quickly as she would like: "On balance it's in my interests to leave. It would help me to employ people if I don't get more and more regulation coming through from the EU.

"Paternity and maternity leave. Nobody asked a small business with two employees what the effect would be if someone takes that sort of leave. Because that finishes you."

In the end the 5.2 million small businesses in this country, just like people, have vastly differing opinions. Their views are shaped by their sector, their trade, their clients and the personalities running them. And it clearly shows that as June 23rd looms large, the business vote has by no means yet made up its mind.