Business leaders call for EU rethink

Most British business leaders think the burden of EU regulations outweighs the benefits of the single market, a new survey finds.

An ICM poll of 1,000 chief executives for Open Europe, a think tank that wants an overhaul of the EU, finds 54 per cent believe red tape outweighs the trade benefits, compared to 35 per cent who do not.

“There is now a general feeling across all types of businesses in all sectors that there are just far too many prescriptive regulations coming out of Brussels,” said Simon Wolfson, chief executive of high-street retailer Next.

“What makes people really annoyed is that all this regulation doesn’t seem to be doing either business or employees or consumers much good.”

A further 60 per cent think the UK should renegotiate its EU membership to a relationship based purely on trading agreements, rather than the increasingly political entity that it has become. Just 30 per cent rejected this suggestion.

Today’s survey comes as the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, is set to challenge British politicians to take their role in the EU rather than “sulk from the periphery”.

“The United Kingdom will always have influence in Europe – its size, its economic power and its international network will ensure that,” he will tell a meeting at Chatham House in London.

“So the question is – does the UK want to shape a positive agenda, which reflects its own agenda, or be dragged along as a reluctant partner? Do you want to drive from the centre or sulk from the periphery?”

Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is widely expected to take over from Tony Blair as the next prime minister, is considered to be more Atlanticist than European in his outlook, and Conservative leader David Cameron has also shifted the debate away from the EU.

He told his party’s conference in Bournemouth earlier this month that for too long the Tories talked about things they cared most about – namely Europe – instead of those that most people care about.

Today’s poll finds widespread disillusionment with the EU among business leaders – 52 per cent agreed that the EU was “failing” and thought Britain would be more prosperous and secure if it kept the pound and took back powers from Brussels.

Just 36 per cent backed Britain’s entry into the euro – something that most commentators agree is highly unlikely to happen under this Labour government. The Tories have also ruled it out.