CBI chief seeks an end to damaging Brexit row

The new director-general of the CBI has held out an olive branch to members of the business lobby group who want Britain to quit the European Union, reports The Guardian.

Carolyn Fairbairn, who takes over from John Cridland today, will use her first hours in the role to acknowledge that, while most CBI members want to stay in a reformed EU, some are wedded to a British exit, or Brexit.

She will pledge that the CBI will “listen to and respect their views and consult with them”.

Ms Fairbairn, a former BBC and ITV executive and McKinsey partner, will claim that the majority of CBI members want Britain to stay in the EU, provided that reforms include “more trade deals and less and better regulation”. Paul Drechsler, the CBI’s president, has acknowledged that there is no uniform business view of membership, but has been sharply critical of the “series of systematic and sustained attacks” on the EU by pro-Brexit campaigners.

Vote Leave, which is campaigning for a British exit, has been vocal in its criticism of the CBI and wrote to Ms Fairbairn recently calling on her to rethink the traditionally pro-EU stance adopted by the business organisation.

Peter Cruddas, Vote Leave’s co-treasurer, said: “The CBI is funded by the EU, so it is no surprise that it almost never criticises it. The CBI is not properly representing British business interests — it is the voice of Brussels.”

The group used last week’s CBI conference as the focus for its protests, culminating in the heckling of David Cameron by two students during a speech in which he assured the audience that he wanted to work with business leaders to keep Britain in a reformed Europe.

Vote Leave has vowed to make further protests before the vote on membership of the EU, particularly by disrupting the annual meetings of big companies that are backing the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign.

The CBI’s stance on Europe has provoked criticism that it does not reflect the views of smaller businesses, in particular, although a separate study suggests that Brexit would hit the nation’s small businesses hard. The research by Euler Hermes, the trade credit insurer, predicted that UK GDP could drop by 2 per cent after an exit. Exports would fall because of the introduction of trade tariffs, supply chains would be damaged and even domestic business relationships could flounder as a result of reduced overseas investment in Britain.

Ana Boata, European economist at Euler Hermes, said that Britain faced losing £30 billion of overseas trade with the single market, or 8 per cent of total UK goods exports, if free-trade agreements with the EU were lost. The chemicals, automotive, textile, energy and agriculture industries would be hit hardest.

Ms Boata said Britain’s yawning trade gap would grow by 30 per cent, or £35 billion, in the year after new trade agreements were drawn up following an exit. Reduced foreign direct investment, combined with existing overseas investors pulling out of the UK, could amount to a £200 billion loss in the four years after the referendum if the UK voted to leave the EU, she added.