Groups campaigning to take Britain out of the European Union have secured £8.2 million (€10.3m) in recent weeks from leading businessmen in the financial services industries.
Campaigns from both sides of the debate have appealed to big business to help them fight a referendum on 23 June, a decision that will not only determine Britain’s future in trade and world affairs but also shape the 28-member bloc.
According to the Electoral Commission, the groups campaigning for a British exit, or Brexit, raised £8.2 million (€10.3m) in the 12 weeks from 1 February, helped by large donations from Peter Hargreaves, a founder of investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown, and millionaire insurance tycoon Arron Banks.
Leave.EU, which is not the official group leading the Leave campaign, also received a £6 million (€7.58m) loan from Banks.
The groups campaigning to keep Britain in the EU raised £7.5 million (€9.48m), boosted by donations from David Sainsbury, the former chairman of the supermarket Sainsbury’s who has given money to the main opposition Labour Party.
“Today it’s clear the Leave campaigns have deep pockets,” Will Straw, executive director of Britain Stronger In Europe, said in a statement yesterday (11 May).
The Remain campaign has also received donations from Banks including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan to help them spend on such items as billboard posters and leaflets.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who is campaigning for Britain to stay in the bloc, has called on the country’s biggest firms to back his argument that a vote to leave could strain links with Britain’s biggest trading partner and damage the economy.
However any British firms making a donation to a political organisation must have shareholder approval, an exercise that can deter companies as it requires forward planning.
British firms also tend to steer clear of commenting on politics. A letter published earlier this year from the bosses of more than a third of the country’s biggest firms backing EU membership was as notable for those firms that did not sign up as those that did.
“There are a lot of wealthy individuals who back Brexit,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank.
“On the Remain side, there are a few, but it tends to be big companies who back remaining in the EU, and big companies find it difficult to donate to political campaigns.”
Hargreaves, a billionaire entrepreneur who sent a letter to around 15 million homes earlier this year to urge people to leave a “wasteful” EU, and banks were the biggest donors to the Leave campaigns during the 1 February to 21 April period.
Hargreaves donated £3.2 million (€4m) to Leave.EU while Banks donated to Grassroots Out, another campaigning organisation. The official group leading the Leave campaign, called Vote Leave, raised £2.8 million (€3.54m).
Those in the official “In” campaign – Britain Stronger in Europe – were boosted by two donations worth more than £2 million (€2.53m) by its leading contributor Sainsbury.
Much of big business has said it supports staying in the EU, concerned that Brexit could break supply contracts, harm the employment of workers from overseas and see costs rise.
But several leaders in financial services and some smaller businesses have come out strongly in favour of leaving, complaining that EU regulations stifle growth.
Figures suggest that the financing is more balanced than it was when Britain last held a referendum on its EU membership in 1975, when businesses joined forces to lead the campaign to keep Britain in and outspent the rival out campaign.
During his campaign fro re-election in 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union and organise a referendum to decide whether or not Britain should remain in the 28-member bloc.
The British premier said he will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU after a two-day summit in Brussels where he obtained concessions from the 27 other EU leaders to give Britain “special status” in the EU.
But EU leaders had their red lines, and ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.
The decision on whether to stay or go could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.
The campaign will be bitterly contested in a country with a long tradition of Euroscepticism and a hostile right-wing press, with opinion polls showing Britons are almost evenly divided.
- 23 June: Referendum
- July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency