By Michele Fitzpatrick, CEO of eviivo
One thing is clear – June 23 is a very important date in the UK’s politico-economic history and, whether we opt to leave or stay, our vote will have repercussions – some minor, others major – on our country’s long-term future, as well as that of the European Union itself.
This is a decision that must therefore not be taken lightly. This is a critical time and one that calls for rational thinking and objective deliberations. However, as seems to be the case more often than not with such debates these days, it is likely that many will let emotions and subjective considerations influence their choice, swayed by the available ‘content’ they can currently access – a situation only made more probable given the absence of unequivocal hard data in this particular instance.
Indeed, a lot has been written and said already, yet nobody has come out with clear and definite answers as to how the referendum – whatever the result – will transform the UK as we know it, or whether it will actually have an impact. We need less personality-driven campaigns, focus must be placed on core issues – what will it means for UK businesses and their consumers if we leave versus if we stay in the EU, and how will SMEs – the backbone of our economy – fare compared to bigger companies.
For a deeper SME understanding of things, we asked the 16,000 small hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses we work with at eviivo for their thoughts on Brexit, And you can click here to see the full results. Analysis of their answers clearly demonstrated that, for a start, there still is a great deal of confusion around the referendum and what it will eventually mean for UK businesses remains unclear.
- Just under half (49.9%) of the 1,050 owners who took part in our study said they were strongly in favour of the UK leaving the EU; 37% said we should absolutely stay; 12% were undecided; 1% do not care either way.
- Of those who plan to vote in favour of Brexit, 33% believe it will make the UK stronger economically. And guess what? When looking at the other side of the argument, 41% believe that staying will make the UK stronger economically.
But it also emphasised that such debates are now fueled by passion before reason.
- When asked which politician they felt would do the best job of managing the transition should we leave the EU, both sides opted for Boris Johnson. And the same Mr Johnson was both camps’ first pick for EU president should we opt to stay. This does not mean they are wrong, just that personality are leading the day.
The fact that this survey led to our highest – and fastest – response rate ever also tells us that small business owners are dying to be heard. Many column inches and plenty airtime have been allocated to Brexit over the past few months, yet I cannot recall a time when the focus was on what a B&B owner in Brighton or a butcher in Northampton think staying or leaving will mean for them.
- ‘LEAVE’: 31% believe it will reduce the amount of red tape for UK businesses; 26% think it will help reduce immigration.
- ‘STAY’: 18% fear the uncertainly that would follow leaving the EU will have a direct negative impact on their bottom line; 31% expressed the wish to reform the EU from within.
Whether or not we remain within the EU, the UK is in Europe. In my opinion, a more worthwhile debate is about figuring out what kind of European partner we should be. It is a debate that started, and possibly stalled, with the negotiated ‘offer’ on the table from the EU, and one that we should be comfortable running and running in a permanent quest for improvement. Looking into the specifics of how we should engage with our European neighbours, we may find that the referendum might actually have little bearing on UK SMEs, regardless of the outcome on June 23.
Let us be clear – beyond all the rhetoric, not one of our senior politicians has been definite on what will happen if the UK leaves the EU. What specific EU constraints would be lifted? What specific EU rulings would be amended or removed? How will EU governments and citizens react? Will this lead to animosity towards the UK that will in turn have a detrimental impact on our economy and tourism? The ‘Out’ campaign dismisses this on the grounds that our economy and lifestyle are so intrinsically tied to that of the EU that both parties will have no other option but to be reasonable. But where are their guarantees? More importantly, what will it mean for small businesses like eviivo and our customers?
No one wants to deal with yet another round of gratuitous changes in legislation and regulations, which is something that none of us would be able to escape. Most governments are firmly behind the curve when it comes to adapting legislation to the online world. Interestingly, and within each specific industry, the Internet seems to be driving more harmonization, more globalisation, faster than any government or EU institution could hope to achieve. And with it, paradoxically, more constraints – and nowhere more so than in the travel and hospitality industry. So if the real debate is not about economy and trade but rather about sovereignty, then is the EU really as big an issue as the online impact that global brands have over smaller businesses?
On the other hand, people know what things will be like if the UK stays in the EU. Yes, it is entirely justified to be tired of the excessive bureaucracy of EU institutions, seemingly more concerned with protection and subsidies than innovation and competition. But will change not be easier to provoke by staying and fighting from within? Will our voice not carry more weight and power if we are sitting at the negotiating table, in fact heading it? Let us also remind ourselves that 81% of visitors and 64% of the tourism industry’s revenue for 2014 came from EU countries. Have we seen and heard enough from so-called experts on the subject to safely assume that leaving the UK will not jeopardise such positive results?
As do many start-ups in the tourism, hospitality and technology sectors, we at eviivo depend on international expansion for growth. As such, we hope that, regardless of the outcome of this referendum for the ages, the UK government will take action to secure minimal disruption to EU trade. Yet, in the eventuality where a majority of British people should vote ‘Stay’, we would still wish to see Mr Cameron and his government engage in much-needed reforms and go about tackling the many barriers that small and independent UK businesses still have to cope with domestically, starting with the need for a better and fairer taxation system, less red tape and implementing measures to ensure a level playing field when it comes to doing business online.
Revolution starts at home.