Businesses and advisors across Birmingham, Liverpool and London considered five key questions.
1. Does EU membership benefit our exporters? Not at all, a little, somewhat, a lot?
The consensus in Birmingham was that EU membership is good for our exporters, especially SME businesses that benefit from the relative simplicity of trading and shipping. Trading with the EU as an outsider would require customs clearance at export and import, adding costs that would negatively impact on small transactions and particularly SMEs.
Attendees in Liverpool felt exporters had considerable bargaining power internationally by being part of EU as against the much smaller UK. It was also felt that if the UK left the EU many EU- based buyers would be more likely to turn other EU suppliers rather than the UK.
2. Is the current uncertainty about EU membership impacting on UK exporters?
On the whole participants felt the current uncertainty about EU membership was not a significant factor for the majority of smaller UK exporters who operate on a shorter time frame, and without the need for decision-making around long term investment.
Uncertainty was more likely to impact on those businesses that need to invest or make decisions in plant or production over a longer term. It was also noted that UK exporters in the automotive, aerospace, banking and financial sectors could feel the impact if uncertainty caused overseas investors to rethink their investment priorities.
3. Does experience of trading with the EU help exporters to go on to trade with the global market?
The relative simplicity of trading with the EU provides UK companies with valuable training prospects and the confidence to develop a strategic approach to new global markets, though the belief is that many struggle to know who to turn to for help in harnessing these opportunities.
Attendees in Birmingham pointed out that those SMEs that do establish successful trading relationships with expanding EU companies often benefit in the longer term from being an integral part of a tried and tested supply chain.
4. Which is the thing you would most like to see changed about EU membership?
Desirable changes to EU membership ranged from a reduction in ‘red tape’ that hampered businesses to reforming the Common Agricultural Policy and removing control over financial decision making from countries with vested interests.
Many also called for changes in the way regulations could be adapted by different member states to create a state of unfairness that should not exist in a unified trading block.
Many taking part also agreed that more information in the public domain on the practicalities and benefits of international trade would help businesses seeking to sift facts from negative perceptions about EU membership.
Whilst attendees in London expressed concern that Government and financial institutions were still not doing enough to support UK businesses to develop an export market, they also noted that businesses needed better platforms to debate and share ‘best practice’ information to reduce the risks associated with a ‘passive’ approach to export.
5. In, out or renegotiation?
All expressed the view that, although it would not be realistic for the UK to renegotiate the terms of EU membership, of the EU, the issue of renegotiation should be part of a wider reforming agenda.
Said the Institute of Export’s Director General Lesley Batchelor: “We received a wealth of positive responses from those who attended and benefited from this second and expanded series of debates.
“Attendees’ reactions reinforce the importance of providing a platform such as PIT STOP to enable exporters at grass roots level to share common issues along with calls to action on key issues impacting on their ability to trade internationally. Many thanks to all participants and for the invaluable feedback.”