The small businessman who may decide Britain’s fate in Europe
For Olly Stevens (center at top), owner of the Velo House in Tunbridge Wells, a potential divorce from the EU could be “claustrophobic for business” | James Clarke for POLITICO
TUNBRIDGE WELLS, England — Ahead of June’s referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU, nearly all the major voter blocks are largely accounted for. Big business is mostly in favor of staying. Older voters tend to want to leave. The majority of Londoners and Scots are Bremainers, while the north and west of England skew towards Brexit, and so on.
Then you have the small businessman.
Neither campaign has so far been able to claim the people who run small and medium-sized enterprises in the U.K. as their own, turning this constituency into one of the most important battlegrounds for hearts and minds. A cacophony of discordant polls has further clouded the view of a group that is the backbone of the U.K. economy, accounting for 60 percent of all private-sector employment and nearly half of the total revenue of British companies.
When the Federation of Small Businesses, a trade organization, asked SMEs about the EU referendum in February, it found that “a staggering 52 percent of our members do not feel informed about the EU.” More than 40 percent of the respondents said they had yet to make up their minds on Brexit.
Small business owners are, by their very nature, independent-minded and range across the political spectrum.
With the campaign due to start in earnest in a couple of weeks, officials from both the In and Out camps say they will look at small businesses as an important target. They warn that the sector is far from monolithic.
In practice, they say, the battle for the votes of small firm owners will be fought at grassroots level, city by city, rather than with a big bang campaign like the one to enlist bigger companies.
That’s because small business owners are, by their very nature, independent-minded and range across the political spectrum.
“[Brexit] is like leaving your wife for another woman, but you haven’t met the other woman yet,” says Olly Stevens, who seems to take the risks of a Brexit more seriously than most. A City trader-turned-retail-entrepreneur in Tunbridge Wells, a small town just outside London, he is convinced that his business would suffer if Britain and Europe were to separate.
That’s clearly not the case for Wilson Boardman, who runs Micromix Plant Health, a producer of agricultural fertilizers. “The EU is an overblown bureaucracy which is terminally corrupt, founded on a currency which is itself a busted flush,” he says from Micromix’s headquarters in Nottingamshire, three hours north of London.
Like many small entrepreneurs who will make up their minds in the next couple of months, Stevens and Boardman have come to diametrically opposite conclusions through an unscientific mixing of their business, cultural and ideological views.
After leaving the City, Stevens went back to his native Tunbridge Wells to set up his dream shop in a former NatWest bank branch, The Velo House. It’s a cool cafe and bar on the ground floor and a bike sales and repair shop on top. “We wanted to create the atmosphere of a cycling clubhouse,” Stevens, a keen road cyclist, says.
An extended period of uncertainty could be catastrophic for business.” — Olly Stevens, bike shop owner
Business has been thriving in the two years since launch, growing at around 30 percent a year. The shop now employs 20 people, Stevens says, sipping his terrific flat white, the pinnacle of Australian-style coffee that he learned during a sojourn in Melbourne.
He is looking to expand elsewhere, but is now concerned about the possibility of a Brexit. “The biggest danger for business is the uncertainty [that would follow a Brexit],” he says. “An extended period of uncertainty could be catastrophic for business.”
More to the point, the Velo House imports bikes and equipment from Germany, Italy and Belgium. So any barriers to accessing the single market would have a big impact on Stevens’ bottom line. He is also a big fan of one of the major bogeymen of Britain’s Euroskeptics: EU-mandated standards.
“All the safety standards [for bikes] are European, which is good for us because we can buy from a bigger pool,” he says. “It’s quicker and cheaper. Standardization is good. I know that if I buy something from Europe, it will meet both the European and U.K. standards.”
Micromix’s Boardman begs, or more accurately, demands to differ. “We have a ridiculous set of regulations which means all our raw materials have to go through a REACH registration scheme,” he says, referring to the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals regulation. “Our non-EU competitors get to use non-REACH registered materials which, for some reason, are cheaper.”
The EU spent nine years trying to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.S. Britain alone could get an FTA with the U.S. within months.” — Wilson Boardman, Micromix Health Plant boss
On paper, Micromix is not a business that should shun or even abhor the EU. The company sells its products in 21 countries and around a quarter of its £3.5 million (€4.4 million) annual turnover comes from EU-based clients, Boardman says. It’s a far cry from businesses such as JD Wetherspoon, the big chain of pubs that cater to a domestic clientele and doesn’t export its services, whose founder recently came out in favor of Brexit.
But Boardman believes that even if Britain were outside the EU, his clients would keep buying from Micromix. “Our business is not going to go away,” he says. “My customers are still going to buy my product. We are their biggest supplier — are they really going to cut off their nose to spite their face?”
Boardman is convinced, as many in the Out camp are, that a post-Brexit Britain would easily strike free-trade agreements with its biggest economic partners, thus reaping the benefits of the EU single market without Brussels’ hassle. “The EU spent nine years trying to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.S. Britain alone could get an FTA with the U.S. within months,” he says.
Stevens doesn’t buy it. “My experience of seeing Australia trying to negotiate trade agreements doesn’t fill me with confidence,” he says.
For both Stevens and Boardman, as with many Brits, the referendum is an opportunity to reflect on the country’s tortuous relationship with the EU.
“I am a supporter of the idea of the European Union,” says Stevens. “You can’t deny the fact that we are located in Europe. This idea of separating doesn’t make much sense.”
Boardman describes himself as a “concerned Europhile” for most of his life and remembers voting for keeping Britain in the then-European Economic Community as an 18-year-old in 1975. But in recent years, his view of the EU project have become bleaker. “We have no power and influence in the EU,” he maintains.
Some of the differences between the coffee-and-bike entrepreneur and the fertilizer producer can be explained by a generational and political gap. Boardman is 59 and says he voted, albeit reluctantly, for the UK Independence Party in the last election, while Stevens is just over 40.
Yet, both seem to agree that there is a cultural chasm between Britain and “the Continent.”
Stevens, who travels frequently to places like Belgium and France for amateur bike races, admits that Britons “feel more comfortable with Northern Europe than with Spain and Italy. Culturally, ancestrally and historically, we come from Anglo-Saxon roots.” But, he adds, “that’s an issue for every big federation — you just have to look at the U.S.”
Boardman, on the other hand, sees the cultural divide as yet another reason for leaving. “Britain is not European enough to let Berlin and Paris decide our fate.”
What would he do if the Brexit camp loses on June 23? “If the majority chooses to stay, we will accept it,” Boardman says. “That is the democracy we have here that we don’t have in the EU.”