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EU referendum: Global outlook needed for expansion

By Jeffrey Peel

Published 21/06/2016

A free market would allow businesses to look abroad for workers
A free market would allow businesses to look abroad for workers

Shortly after I returned to Northern Ireland - after 12 years working in London and New York - I joined a start-up software company. We obtained venture capital - entirely, in the later rounds - from American venture capital firms. The company I joined was, ultimately, sold to an American company which was itself acquired by another big American company.

Many local start-ups have followed a similar route. Funded by American money then acquired by American technology companies. Apion was acquired by (American). Aepona was acquired by Intel (American). Lagan Technology was acquired by Kana (American). The Gem was acquired by Concentrix (American). Amphion Semiconductor was acquired by Conexant (American).

We produce technology that readily works and gains market traction in the USA. We speak the same language. We adopt similar common law based legal processes. Our ties with English speaking America, in my view, are much more important than our membership of the EU. Our trade with America is growing every year, while our trade with the EU is declining.

I have worked with dozens of technology companies and I can't think of one that felt that the EU was an easier market to enter than America or Singapore or Hong Kong. The EU, practically, is not a single market. Local business development staff in Paris or Frankfurt cost a fortune. And there's all the EU red tape and in-country regulations. The EU is not like America - multiple offices are needed in each major EU market and business has to be conducted in local languages. Software has to be localised. English language markets are bigger and easier. The business language of China is English.

Those who argue that we should remain in the EU point out that we'd miss out on fabulous R&D programmes like Horizon 2020 and other scientific research programmes. But in all my time working in technology I have not been involved in a single application to Horizon. Universities and R&D departments of huge companies apply lots, I'm sure. But Horizon is open to many countries well outside the EU. Countries like South Africa, Gabon and Malaysia. Outside the EU we can still buddy-up and pitch for Horizon money if that seems like a sensible thing to do.

And as for skills, well it would be good if we could hire people to come work here, or stay in their home countries and work. There should be a free market for the skills needed by technology businesses. Why only look in the EU pool for talent?

The EU is a shrinking market with many, elemental problems. With an aging population and structural problems - like youth unemployment - the EU is not an answer to our problems, it's a contributor to them if we remain in. Let's trade with the EU if it suits us. But let's widen our vision to the seven billion people on this planet that can help make us realise our business visions.

  • Jeffrey Peel is MD of Quadriga Consulting Ltd - and works with clients in the technology sector. He's also the NI chairman of Business for Britain (the business voice of Vote Leave). He's @jeffreypeel on Twitter

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