By Daniel Hunter

CBI President Sir Mike Rake today (Monday) made the case for the UK remaining open to trade, people and investment within a reformed European Union.

Opening the CBI’s flagship annual conference in London, Sir Mike said that the UK faces a choice between two futures:

“One, in which we risk looking inward, shutting ourselves off from the world in the face of inevitable global change and where we reject the power of free and competitive markets to drive progress.

“The other, in which we embrace the openness which has always been the foundation of Britain’s success — to trade, to people, to investment and to ideas from abroad, and of competitive markets at home.

“British business will always choose openness.

“In response to voices which seek to divide us, we must renew and reaffirm our future as an open and outward looking country.

“Nowhere is this more important today than in the debate about Europe.

“Amidst by-elections and with the general election just six months away, the political rhetoric is inevitably ratcheting up as the battle for hearts, minds and votes intensifies.”

On staying within a reformed European Union, Sir Mike said:

“The UK’s membership of a reformed EU is overwhelmingly in our national interest. Eight out of ten CBI members, large and small, would vote to stay in the EU in a referendum.

He pointed to the benefits of being part of a single market with 500 million consumers, and how the EU is our gateway to trade with our closest partners, a springboard to the rest of the world through trade deals, and a route to better living standards at home.

On immigration

He argued that the economic evidence shows that immigration is of net benefit. Citing BT’s experience in rolling out superfast broadband, Sir Mike said the company could not have delivered such a project critical to the future of the country without a significant workforce from outside of it:

“Without the availability of this labour, instead of 82% coverage, much of Britain would still be waiting for superfast broadband and those yet to get it would be suffering further delay," he said.

“Immigration has been and is part of the solution to the skills shortages faced by the UK.

“But it’s clear that there is a disconnect between the experiences of businesses and the public at large.

“With tightening immigration controls at the top of many voters’ priorities for government, it is an issue and concern that politicians cannot ignore. Businesses must recognise this.

“Immigration can have consequences at a local level, with pressure on housing and schools. In some areas, concerns about immigration have become a substitute for frustrations with living standards.

“Business has a vital role to play in ensuring the debate is based on the facts whilst recognising the genuine concerns of the public around immigration. Including on public services, jobs and welfare.

“On welfare, free movement should offer the right to work, not the right to claim benefits, so action should be taken, both domestically and with EU partners, to ensure the rules are fit for purpose.

“But it is not an either/or choice between immigration and increasing the skills of our workforce.”

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