Just say no

A long campaign has failed to sway UK retail leaders on economic reasons for Britain to leave the European Union.

The British should remain in the European Union, and they should vote to reject a June 23 referendum seeking Britain’s EU exit (the so-called “Brexit”), UK retail chairmen say in overpowering fashion.

Almost three dozen of them responded—with 72% opposing Brexit—in a Korn Ferry Boardroom Pulse survey of FTSE100 chairmen in the sector. These results come in the wake of a previous Korn Ferry study with retailers that also showed heavy opposition to Brexit.

These retailing powerhouses, whose enterprises account for a market capitalization of £705,408 million and employ more than 1,750,000 British workers, said a year’s campaigning by EU foes had failed to sway them. “I have barely heard a single economic, political, or social argument for leaving [the EU] that is in any way convincing,” one chairman said in the survey’s unattributed comments.

How will you vote in relation to Brexit?

Dominic Schofield, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry, offered insight about the retail leaders’ resistance to Brexit. “The desire to remain in the EU is much stronger among this group of business leaders than it is among the general public—where polls indicate it is very close indeed,” he said. “There’s been endless debate around a possible Brexit, but this has had very little cut-through with chairmen—who haven’t been convinced by the economic arguments for leaving the [European] Union.”

The chairmen were less certain when asked whether the EU can actually survive the challenges it faces, including populist parties in the West, nationalist governments in Eastern Europe, and mass migration. While 57% of those surveyed said that the EU could, a third (33%) admitted they were unsure of its long-term future, and a question mark hangs over whether a Brexit would swing this dynamic further.

One chairman summed up this view, saying, “I hold no great candle for the EU as an organization and it may in time collapse—but it is much more likely to modify before we get anywhere near a state of collapse.”

Has your view changed in the last 12 months?

The chairmen surveyed were even more divided in their views of Boris Johnson. While the ex-mayor of London is a big figure in the Brexit campaign, chairmen doubt the value he adds—a sentiment in keeping with their general skepticism of media hype. While 47% of those surveyed believe Johnson is helping the campaign, almost a third believe he is a hindrance.

“There’s no doubting Boris’s charisma,” Schofield said. “However, he is a man who can divide opinion as easily as he inspires supporters—one chairman [labeled] him ‘as dangerous as [Donald] Trump.’ Whether his charisma and popularity is enough to swing the vote is yet to be seen.”

The Boardroom Pulse is a regular survey of the chairmen of FTSE 100 companies on topical business, political, and governance issues. The survey was conducted in May 2016. Its results underscore findings in a recent study by the firm, “Beyond Brexit,” detailing views by UK retail chairmen on a range of timely topics. The UK’s retail elite in this study similarly rejected Brexit.

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