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Multinational companies operating in Britain must end their vow of silence over the UK’s future in Europe and join the fight against an EU exit, according to Chuka Umunna, Labour’s business spokesman.
Mr Umunna claims some big companies have muzzled their UK managers, fearing reputational damage if they are drawn into what is expected to be a visceral EU referendum campaign.
“There is undoubtedly a problem of multinationals situated in the UK being unwilling to authorise their senior UK management to enter into the fray of the referendum debate,” Mr Umunna said. “It is imperative that the chairmen and chief executives of these companies empower their boards to speak out on these issues.”
He also wants local factory managers to explain to workers the implications of Britain leaving the EU.
Mr Umunna was regarded as a frontrunner for the Labour leadership but withdrew from the race after the media began “doorstepping” his family and relatives of his girlfriend.
He believes multinationals will be among the most powerful voices in the referendum campaign, especially if they argue that a Brexit could force them to reconsider further investment in Britain.
Not all big businesses are worried about Britain leaving. “We are the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world,” Lord Bamford, JCB chairman, said this month. “We could exist on our own — peacefully and sensibly.”
But the chief executives or chairmen of several leading European multinationals have told the Financial Times over the past year that, while they favoured Britain remaining a member of the EU, they were unwilling to speak out.
They feared being seen to engage in a domestic political debate that could backfire on their operations or cause resentment among employees in the country.
Juergen Maier, chief executive of Siemens UK and a non-executive director of the government’s business department, is one executive who has been willing to talk publicly about the benefits of membership.
“I think it’s important and hence I am speaking up. We have a responsibility to say what our concerns are,” Mr Maier told the FT earlier this year. “We think that in the end we will hopefully persuade an electorate to ultimately make the right decision.”
The German engineering company has 14,000 staff in the UK.
Last week, the UK president of Airbus, the European aerospace group which employs 16,000 people in the UK, said he favoured continued EU membership. Everything Airbus manufactured in the UK and its research, investment and employees, Paul Kahn said, depended on “European industrial organisation and integration”.
Business Europe, which gathers together the main European business lobby groups including the UK’s CBI, has been unwilling to make public statements on the question of Britain’s EU membership. Sir Mike Rake, the CBI’s president, said on Wednesday that business leaders must “turn up the volume” on the benefits of the country remaining in the bloc.
The European Round Table of Industrialists, which groups together the 53 chief executives and chairs of leading European multinational companies across a wide range of sectors, has said it favours Britain remaining in the European Union although it has been unwilling to go beyond general statements.
Recently it said: “For European industry to remain competitive against unrelenting pressure from the US, China and other major trading blocs, the EU needs a large and vibrant single market. Fragmentation of markets would go against the grain of the 21st century economy.”