Nearly half of small and medium-sized businesses want Britain to negotiate a looser relationship with the European Union, while remaining a member, according to a poll by the British Chambers of Commerce.

In its survey of more than 1,800 members, the BCC found that 47 per cent wanted a looser relationship, while only 12 per cent favoured withdrawal and 9 per cent wanted deeper integration.

David Cameron has hinted at a referendum in the next parliament about Britain’s relationship with the EU, possibly after an attempted renegotiation.

Business is likely to play a big part – with large companies generally more enthusiastic about EU membership than smaller ones. Many believe renegotiation is bound to fail, making an in-out referendum more likely.

John Longworth, the BCC’s director-general, said: “Nearly four decades after Britain joined the European Community, it is astonishing that British firms seem to feel that the balance of advantage of EU membership is lessening. Businesses are pragmatic: they want to be part of a European single market, but only if it delivers real and open access for British goods and services.”

He said the political establishment should tread carefully and avoid rushed political decisions on the shape of Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

Instead, “both the government and the opposition should carefully consider how we can get a single market that works for business while ensuring that legislation from Brussels doesn’t damage our economic prospects”.

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