'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?' This was the opening question to an audience of property experts at our EU referendum debate, in partnership with City Property Association, at Mishcon HQ on 5 May.
Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, who chaired the debate, introduced the six panellists who represented both in and out camps. In favour of remaining in the EU were: Mark Boleat, Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, Corporation of London; Sir George Iacobescu, Chairman Canary Wharf Group; and Gina Miller, Britain Stronger In and Founding Partner, Head of Sales & Marketing, SCM Direct. Those in favour of leaving the EU were: David Buik, Market Commentator at Panmure Gordon; Lord Howard Emerson Flight, Vote Leave and Conservative Politician; and Richard Tice, Co-Founder Leave.EU and entrepreneur.
In response to this million dollar question, the audience was firmly in favour of remaining – with 84% keen to stay in the EU and just 16% voting to leave. Capitalising on this result, Mark Boleat kicked off the debate, stating that, according to City of London Corporation's analysis, not one City institution feels business would be better if we left, many say it would be irrelevant, and others that it would be either moderately or significantly damaging.
David Buik disagreed: "With weeks until the referendum" he said, "we now have two clear factions. The establishment against the plebs - people like me. The plebs are the perpetrators of democracy, free enterprise, free trade, free speech, freedom to decide their own destiny and the control of proper immigration." He acknowledged that there will be uncertainty, but asked "where is that bulldog spirit of 1940? We need it now, more than we've ever needed it!"
Buik pointed out that there are 193 trading countries throughout the world and only 28 of them are in Europe. "I have a big problem with the EU, but the individual countries in Europe, I have no problem with". He urged the audience to think of the other 165 countries that Britain can do business with, stating that we will find a way to get the necessary trade deals done – "we've got the wrong eggs in the wrong basket in the long-term".
Also in support of 'leave', Lord Howard Emerson Flight spoke of the need to keep the democracy we fought for 1000 years to achieve, finding it unacceptable that 65% of our law comes from Brussels. He focused on immigration, arguing that no-one really knows the scale of migration and that Britain needs control of its borders. He stressed that our safety depends on NATO and not on the EU, which "is found to be unreliable".
The EU, according to Emerson Flight, "is an idea whose time is past. Of the 20 main regulations of the last decade or so, we opposed half but were forced to accept regulations we did not want to". He disagreed emphatically with the government's 'fear' campaign, noting that with Britain's current account surplus of £107billion, Europe would be mad not to do a sensible deal with the country.
Sir George Iacobescu spoke on behalf of himself, his company - Canary Wharf Group - and his board and their investors – Brookfield and the Qataris - saying they are completely in favour of remaining in the EU. He explained that his company is based in London because it is the gateway to Europe - the same reason other institutions have also come to London. Iacobescu predicted that if the EU falls apart in 20 years' time, Russia will pick up the pieces in countries like Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia: "The world is very worried. A feeling of instability has been created and we need to fix it quickly."
Gina Miller warned that nobody knows how long it could take to get back to where we were on June 23rd 2016, pre-referendum. She argued that it is precisely because we're faced with uncertainty that we need to look at what we can control: "That's what we do in the City every single day - look at balancing cost, risk and return –not launching headlong into risk…We're just about coming out of a financial crisis, where the people who were hit were the youngsters coming into the legal profession, coming into accountancy. Pensioners and investors lost so much money. And now within a decade there's a possibility we could be putting people through the same thing? I don't like the fact that we could be moving from a democracy to a plutocracy - where people with power are the ones telling us what to do." She referenced polls which indicate that the younger generation feel we should remain in the EU, and that FinTech companies see themselves as European and don't understand this debate or how we got here. "The younger generation is going to work hard, save and try to have a better future, but the back-lash, however long it may be, will hit them more than it will hit the older generation."
Miller highlighted that foreign banks are already considering property deals in Europe, threatening the UK's highly lucrative financial services sector, with HSBC stating it will move 1000 of their 5000 investment staff if Britain leaves the EU. "There is no room for buyer's regret once we trigger Article 50" - the formal mechanism for leaving the European Union.
Buik countered Miller's argument: "you just can't say, 'we're off to Frankfurt'. It would take Frankfurt 20 years to build up their infrastructure." He pointed out that London is the central time zone throughout the world, English is the international language, our pre-eminence and experience in finance and banking is second-to-none, and we welcome people from all European countries to come and contribute.
"The UK has the greatest legal system…It is hugely influential, a permanent member of NATO, the UN Security Council, the G8 and the Head of the Commonwealth. London has the best financial centre across the world", Richard Tice said. "We're the fifth-largest economy, our labour relations are excellent, we're hard-working and our property market is the safest, most liquid, most transparent in the world. We have three of the top 10 universities around the world…and we enjoy the global language of business. None of these attributes have anything to do with our membership of the EU. And they won't change if we leave"
Tice stressed that EU regulations impact 100% of UK businesses, when only 5% - the big corporations - trade with the EU; and are costing tens of billions every year, which ought to be invested in future growth and jobs. "We are a 9% voting subsidiary of a bureaucratically unaccountable Brussels institution, which hasn't signed its accounts for 21 years" - leaving us unable to negotiate our own free trade agreements. Tice argued that the medium and long-term opportunities for prosperity for Britain are worth grabbing. In response to a question from Pat Brown of Central about maintaining diversity and the talent pool in London in light of migration concerns, Tice said that he welcomed immigration but that this must be controlled.
Questions from the audience triggered further debate around patriotism, defence, housing and the impact on the construction industry. Both sides of the debate presented well-versed arguments, but were they enough to shift the decision of the audience? The closing poll indicated that while the audience was slightly swayed by the leave speakers - by the end of the debate, the remain vote had dropped to 78% - the property audience's vote was still firmly in favour of remaining in the EU.
Maybe "being part of the EU is part of being great" as Boleat said, or perhaps we need to "put the 'great' back into Britain, by voting leave", as Tice said, or possibly there's still chance of reaching a workable - as yet unestablished – compromise. One thing, however, is for sure. This referendum has generated a series of sub-debates that impact all aspects of British society, debates that will inevitably remain once the referendum has been and gone. It's difficult to conceive that the answers to core questions around immigration, security, infrastructure, housing, privacy, competition and many more can be answered by a simple 'in' or 'out' decision. That said, we watch with interest where both sides of the debate will take their campaigns in these final weeks – fasten your seatbelts.
If you have any questions arising from this, please contact Susan Freeman; 020 3321 7017