As I write this the outcome of the referendum to determine whether Britain leaves the European Union hangs in the balance. And it has me thinking about the effect it will have on the UK's technology industry.
It will not come as a surprise for regular V3 readers that much of the technology industry is in support of the UK remaining in the EU.
Industry behemoths like Microsoft have actively declared a pro-EU position, while organisations like TechUK, which represents around 900 British technology firms, has come out in support of the Remain camp.
The reasons for this are numerous, but it is worth trying to blank out the conflicting information, hazy ‘facts’ and at times downright lies peddled by the Leave and Remain camps, and instead look at a few areas and arguments from the technology industry’s perspective.
One of the main reasons for wanting to remain in the EU for those in the technology sector is access to skills. A lack of digital skills in the UK poses a very real threat to the technology sector and to non-IT companies undergoing a digital transformation.
The UK has enjoyed seeing its technology industry grow, but this growth will be maintained only if it is fuelled by skilled workers. Membership of the EU allows freedom of movement, and Britain has access to workers on mainland Europe who have digital skills yet lack the opportunity to use them in their home nations.
I have met people from Eastern Europe who are in technical jobs at Facebook UK and in the capital's startup scene who have brought skills into Britain at a time when the country struggles to fill jobs that need a strong level of digital nous.
There is a solid argument for training UK citizens to have such digital skills so that jobs are provided to people already in the country, and that is partially underway thanks to the introduction of coding in schools.
But Britain’s technology industry needs to snap up skills in the EU to fill the gap before it has a detrimental affect, particularly as the closure of the Post Study Work Visa has made it more difficult to attract and retain digital talent from beyond the EU.
Then there is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) designed to create a universal standard for handling data in Europe. If Britain leaves the EU it will not be subject to that legislation, but many technology companies in the UK operate in Europe and will need to work with the GDPR.
A Brexit would further muddy the waters, potentially forcing more companies to operate under two data protection laws, resulting in confusing and prohibitive barriers to operating across Europe.
Furthermore, not being part of the EU could persuade companies with major stakes in the UK to reconsider their position in the region. This would apply to pretty much every large technology firm with a European headquarters in Britain, such as Facebook, Google and IBM.
This could lead to companies leaving Britain and establishing new HQs on the continent, resulting in a loss of jobs, tax revenue and the other economic benefits of having large companies in the UK.
Next to consider is the Digital Single Market, a way to tear down the regulatory walls that prevent digital services being used equally across EU member states. It has the potential to contribute €415bn to the EU economy every year and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
If Britain leaves the EU it loses out on the Digital Single Market, which means it loses out on the money and jobs it could offer.
Major technology companies already well established in Europe may not feel the pinch in losing out on the Digital Single Market, but startups and smaller companies could be stifled by being left out of the EU fold.
Britain was once called a nation of shopkeepers, but entrepreneurialism and the growth of startup clusters makes the UK a nation of small businesses.
Many of those businesses offer digital services that need to reach audiences beyond the UK to scale in a competitive market and continue to fuel Britain’s digital and technology sector. Access to the Digital Single Market could dramatically improve their chances.
Sure, there are arguments that leaving the EU could free British businesses from EU trade agreements that may restrict how they can operate beyond its borders.
But without the EU’s market strength and trade agreements with external markets UK firms would be up against the economic might of the US and China, both with significant startup sectors all too willing to snap up new trade deals with the EU that Britain’s exit could open up.
A post-Brexit UK would be less able to influence EU legislation. Britain would have no say on how the European Commission regulates operations in the technology industry, yet many major UK companies depend heavily on their positions in Europe.
The UK’s businesses would still need to work within EU legislative frameworks, yet have no influence over how they are made, thus leaving a strong position for one that is much weaker.
As a nation once called ‘Great Britain’ it is my opinion that it should live up to that name and make its presence felt rather than retreat in the face of clunky law making and red tape. It is better to try to make something better in the early stages than to simply give up.
Finally, there is the economic impact of leaving the EU. There is no clear indication of what this could be, although concerns have been expressed that it will throw the UK into another recession. And many major economists and organisations argue that Britain is much better off in the EU.
The UK has only just emerged from a recession and still faces major economic challenges. Disrupting the status quo when Britain is not at its economic peak seems to me a very bad idea that will have ramifications for the technology industry and beyond.
Of course, much of this is speculation given that there is a plenty of information that outlines the benefits and shortcomings of leaving the EU, making it very difficult to really identify the true impact.
But whichever way the referendum goes, companies in the technology sector should consider the effects of a Brexit on their company's position and future.
I, for one, will vote to remain in the EU as, despite its shortcomings, I believe Britain is better off in the EU than out in the cold. And I urge you to consider this as well, if you have yet to vote.
Tomorrow many will breathe a sigh of relief that it will be business as usual, or prepare their strategies to adapt and compensate for any changes that may come into effect. I’m crossing my fingers for the right result.
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