The business lobby group CBI has dismissed accusations that it is misrepresenting the views of its members on the EU referendum, insisting that the majority want to stay in a reformed EU.
After the claims this week by the Vote Leave campaign, outgoing CBI boss John Cridland said his critics were avoiding the real policy issues in the in-out referendum debate.
“CBI takes these attacks as a badge of honour,” Cridland told reporters at a briefing before its annual conference on Monday. “It goes with the job. If we are saying something that is important here and we land our messages and people need to respond to that, it’s a sign we are saying something useful.
“If I am disappointed about anything, it’s simply that I am really up for debating the issues of the EU, the issues of Britain’s place on the EU, on which I have a very strong mandate from our wide membership. It’s not a consensus and I have never claimed it was a consensus … But I do have an overwhelming majority of businesses that want to be in a reformed EU.”
The prime minister, David Cameron, has promised a vote on EU membership by 2017. After the recent launch of official in and out campaigns, the CBI, which represents 190,000 businesses employing 7 million people, has signalled its determination to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU.
The employers’ body was subsequently accused by Vote Leave this week of misrepresenting the views of British businesses on EU membership and failing to adequately canvas smaller companies in a poll on the issue in 2013.
Vote Leave has also published leaked minutes from a CBI meeting that it said showed the CBI’s leadership had warned ministers not to “overplay their hand” in negotiations with Brussels.
One Vote Leave member, Alan Halsall, the chairman of pram maker Silver Cross, said the revelations reinforced the case for the CBI withdrawing from the Brexit debate. “The CBI says one thing in public and another in private. It claims that it has been ‘banging the drum’ for reform in the EU but privately it warns ministers not to ‘overplay their hand’ in the negotiations,” Halsall said this week.
“The CBI should do the decent thing and drop its plans for a pro-EU campaign. If it does not it will be misrepresenting its members and the wider business community.”
The CBI also faced criticism this year from the business secretary, Sajid Javid, for weakening Cameron’s hand as he prepared to negotiate with Brussels, by appearing to offer unconditional support for British membership.
But Cridland said the CBI had been clear about the reforms it wanted in negotiations between the UK and other EU countries. Its priorities were more EU free trade deals with the rest of the world – such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated with the US – as well as the creation of a “single digital market” in Europe, which would make exports and transactions simpler. The CBI also wants less consumer and employment regulation.
“Our position is crystal clear and our mandate is crystal clear,” Cridland said. “I would just like to debate that with people rather than end up debating process or methodology. And I sometimes feel if people don’t like the result, they blame the process.”
Cridland said the 2013 survey highlighted by Vote Leave was a “very small part” of a “very major piece of work” into the UK’s membership of the EU.
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