Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
ON JANUARY 1, 1973, BRITAIN’S UNION JACK WAS RAISED above the Brussels headquarters of the European Economic Community to mark the entry of the UK into what was generally known as the Common Market.
‘Our’ flag went up at the same time as the tricolour of the Republic of Ireland and white-on-red cross of Denmark, increasing by 50 per cent the membership of the organisation, previously made up of Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and what was then West Germany – plus France, whose president Charles de Gaulle had twice vetoed the UK’s entry. Britain’s then prime minister, Edward Heath, said at the time that membership of the EEC would “bring prosperity to the country”.
“It is going to be a gradual development and obviously things are not going to happen overnight, but from the point of view of our everyday lives we will find there is a great cross-fertilisation of knowledge and information, not only in business but in every other sphere,” he said. “This will enable us to be more efficient and more competitive in gaining more markets not only in Europe but in the rest of the world.”
In just a few weeks’ time the British electorate – many of whom recently deemed Boaty McBoatface to be a suitable name for a royal research ship, thereby calling into question their sagacity, if not their love of quirkiness – will vote to decide whether or not to walk away from all those supposed benefits. The last plebiscite, in 1975, saw 67 per of voters in favour of remaining in, but this year’s poll is expected to be much closer.
If the referendum results in a ‘Brexit’ outcome, breaking the innumerable ties forged over more than four decades will not be easy. While David Cameron might echo his prime ministerial predecessor’s words that “things are not going to happen overnight”, European law says that any withdrawal negotiations have to be completed within two years, after which membership simply lapses.
As Johnny Nash sang so presciently in 1972, “there are more questions than answers”, and not just about the referendum result itself. If the UK votes to stay in, will the other European Union (EU) member states agree to further reform, or will they see the decision as an endorsement of the status quo? If the UK votes to leave, will the government be able to negotiate an orderly exodus from the EU as a whole, or with individual EU members, or with blocs of EU members? What might be the likely results of any negotiations?
Even if one confines the puzzle parameters to the corporate travel sector, the picture scarcely becomes clearer. UK travellers would obviously have to renew all passports – which currently proclaim membership of the Union – and, having done so, would presumably be denied access to the relatively fast-tracked EU immigration channels at airports.
Beyond that, no-one knows. The paucity of knowledge doesn’t mean there is a corresponding paucity of opinions, however. While the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) declines to express a view, its chairman, Graham Ramsey, displays no such reticence. The ATPI Group chief executive is at pains to stress that his comments are based on his own personal position and absolutely not (necessarily) those of the organisation he chairs. He is characteristically forthright.
“The problem is nobody really knows what would happen, but we would have to come to some sort of agreement on visas, work permits, and that sort of thing,” he says. “I don’t think we know what the impact is going to be, but I cannot see any positives from the business travel point of view. My instincts tell me we will see no benefit in terms of corporate travel or business travel generally.”
He says he can’t see how the UK can effectively “damage” the EU and then expect the member nations to be predisposed to still deal favourably with it. “My personal view is that we are much better ‘in’, where we have the opportunity to discuss issues, than ‘out’, where we don’t. I think it’s naive to believe that a Brexit would mean more jobs – the people who are here already aren’t going to leave. It’s not going to stop immigration or terrorism.”
He adds: “As for our ‘special relationship’ with the US, that was a phrase originally coined by Winston Churchill. I think it was true in the Thatcher/Reagan years, and to some extent with Bush and Blair, but it’s not the way the US thinks – they have a ‘special relationship’ with Europe, not merely with us. I think we should stay in, and continue to lobby for the ability to re-negotiate issues, as they arise, from within.”
Ramsey has a perhaps-unlikely ally in Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, and a man not known for his affection for the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. “Ryanair is absolutely clear that the UK economy and its future growth prospects are stronger as a member of the European Union than they are outside of the EU,” O’Leary said recently. “Leaving Europe won’t save the UK money or red tape because, like Norway, the UK will still have to contribute to Europe and obey its rules if it wants to continue to trade freely with Europe.” He urged Ryanair’s customers to deliver a “resounding ‘yes’ vote on June 23”.
His remarks were accompanied by a Ryanair statement that insisted the airline remains critical of both UK and EU government failure to promote low-fare tourism growth, but is a committed supporter of the UK remaining in Europe.
“Ryanair agrees that the EU needs reform, to reduce bureaucracy and become more efficient for the benefit of Europe’s consumers. The best way to achieve this reform is for the UK to lead from within the European Union and not from outside,” the statement concluded.
O’Leary is supported by Easyjet CEO Carolyn McCall who, in an address to the British Air Transport Association (BATA) last year, said: “Easyjet was born from the deregulation of European aviation. The EU has helped Easyjet and other airlines deliver lower fares and more routes. We have a long-established position in favour of the UK’s membership of a reformed EU.”
Speaking to BBT at this year’s Business Travel Show, Easyjet head of industry Iain Withers added: “In one sense, the referendum result isn’t going to make a lot of difference to us – we’re still going to be flying to Europe. But being on the inside is going to make our life a lot easier in many ways. As a company, we want to stay in.”
From the small- and medium-sized enterprise perspective, Corporate Traveller general manager Graeme Milne – whose travel management company is actively planning to strengthen its position in Europe – is quite clear. “Corporate Traveller and [Australian parent company] Flight Centre Travel Group are really only in the UK, so we are looking to open in at least a couple of other European markets in the next year or so. As far as the referendum is concerned, I think that for our industry, it would be better to stay in.”
Not everyone in the travel management community is convinced, however. Confronted with the question as to whether the UK should leave the EU, Business Travel Direct managing director Julie Oliver wavered – albeit briefly.
Again stressing that this is her personal view, and not necessarily that of her company, she said: “If you had asked me a year ago, I would definitely have said ‘stay’. Since then, however, I have to say I haven’t seen any real leadership from within Europe – no-one, as far I can see, has put forward a compelling case for us to remain, and that concerns me.”
Johnny Nash may have had more questions than answers back in 1972, but his preceding hit single was ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ – which may turn out to be true on June 24.
In the meantime, we’re stuck with The Clash – ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go? the ins and outs of ‘in’ and ‘out’...
Read a column from John Stepek editor of Moneyweek magazine on what a Brexit could mean for the UK