More British businesses now want to leave the European Union than earlier this year, the British Chambers of Commerce said in a survey on Tuesday, though most of its members want to remain.
The BCC, one of Britain’s two main employer organisations, said 37% of members intend to vote to leave the EU in June’s referendum, based on a poll conducted in early April, up from 30% in a poll conducted between Jan. 23 and Feb. 4.
The proportion who want to remain dropped to 54% from 60%.
“Although a clear majority of the business people we surveyed continue to express a preference to remain in the European Union, the gap between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ has narrowed significantly in recent weeks,” BCC acting director general Adam Marshall said.
BCC members’ support for EU membership exceeds the public’s.
Opinion polls show British voters are roughly evenly split, with one poll from market research company ICM on Monday showing 46% of those likely to vote wanted to leave, compared with 44% who wished to stay.
The BCC’s online survey of more than 2,000 of its members took place before the publication of a raft of reports from Britain’s finance ministry, the International Monetary Fund and others warning of economic damage if Britain leaves the EU.
In contrast to other surveys suggesting the referendum debate was aggravating an economic slowdown, the BCC said 71% of its members found the debate was having no impact on sales and 80% reported no impact on investment.
Nearly a third of firms said their growth would be boosted if Britain stayed in the EU, while 16 percent said they would gain if Britain left. Almost half felt EU membership made little difference.
Looking purely at firms which do not sell goods or services to the EU — a minority of respondents to the BCC survey, but a majority of British businesses overall — more wanted to leave the EU than to stay, the BCC said.
John Longworth, who had to step down as BCC director general in March after expressing support for Brexit, and now campaigns for a ‘Leave’ vote, said these non-exporting firms were more representative of British business than other BCC members.
“Despite the claims of the pro-EU camp to the contrary, business is not fearful of the referendum or the result,” he said in a statement released by the Vote Leave campaign group.
The BCC has an official neutral stance on EU membership.
The Confederation of British Industry, which mostly represents larger firms than the BCC, says 80% of its members want to remain in the EU and that leaving would bring heavy economic costs.
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.
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