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What happens when we leave the EU? Here's how tech bigwigs saw the UK Brexit debate


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The people of Britain have spoken, and by a miniscule margin, voted to leave the European Union. We all know what this could mean for the economy, immigration, jobs, fishing and even VISA-free travel, but what does Brexit mean for technology?

Tech is big business for the United Kingdom. The UK’s IT industry is worth £58 billion to the economy annually. London-based tech firms alone raised £1.09 billion in venture capital last year. There are 42.4 million smartphone users in the UK, and that’s steadily rising. We’re the world’s fifth biggest economy, and technology and science make up a big part of that.

Leaving the EU will have consequences for every sector, and technology is no exception. No one can say for certain what will happen when (presumably) leave, however Norway – who chose not to enter the EU in 1994 and was often cited as an example by pro-Brexit campaigners – delivered a warning that being alone is not all fun and games.

Of course the politicians can be wrong, the experts can be wrong, and the business leaders can be wrong – this is new territory. They can also be right, and some of the world's most influential technologists have been quite vocal about the EU referendum.

Related: 4 ways Brexit is melting the internet

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What are big tech companies saying?

There’s no shortage of corporate bigwigs wading in on the EU debate, and that’s a good thing. When it comes to Brexit, it’s important to get a view of what our country’s biggest technology business leaders believe will happen. It’s their livelihoods on the line, after all.

It’s no surprise that the Remain camp has garnered the lion’s share of support from big business. The majority of UK exports to the EU, across both services and manufacturing, can largely (though not exclusively) be sourced to the major corporations.

Some of the key tech players throwing their lot in with Remain include: Bill Gates (Founder of Microsoft), Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin), Stephen Hawking (Award-winning physicist), Stephen Fry (Actor and technology columnist), Dr Ian Robertson (Board member at BMW, Gavin Patterson (CEO of BT), Martha Lane Fox (Founder of Lastminute.com), Dido Harding (CEO of TalkTalk), Ronan Dunne (CEO of Telefonica O2 UK), David Stokes (CEO of IBM), and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web).

Here’s Richard Branson talking about his fears for Brexit:

Bill Gates said that a post-Brexit Britain would be a “significantly less attractive place to do business and invest”. He added:

“While ultimately a matter for the British people to decide, it is clear to me that if Britain chooses to be outside of Europe…it will be harder to find and recruit the best talent from across the continent; talent which, in turn, creates jobs for people in the UK.”

And Chris Kenyon, the Senior Vice President at Canonical – the British minds behind the Ubuntu operating system – said:

“Canonical supports the Remain campaign, and believes the UK will fare better, socially and economically, inside the European Union. Employment conditions, safety standards, scientific advancement and economic vibrancy all improve with access to larger pools of talent and customers.”

brexitMicrosoft founder Bill Gates supports the Remain campaign

Kenyon added that the UK has a “special deal” with Europe, that is “a better deal than any other country will ever obtain, or that the UK could ever attain again”.

The technology industry’s Leave camp is a little smaller, granted. Nevertheless, important industry leaders have spoken out in favour of a Brexit vote, including: Sir James Dyson (Founder of Dyson), John Caudwell (Founder of Phones4u), Lord Kalms (Former Chairman of Dixons Retail), and even Julian Assange (Creator of Wikileaks).

Here’s Julian Assange talking about why he believes in Brexit:

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Sir James Dyson said that the UK would “create more wealth and more jobs by being outside the EU than we will within it”.

“When the Remain campaign tells us no-one will trade with us if we leave the EU, sorry, it’s absolute cobblers. Our trade imbalance with Europe is running at £9 billion a month and rising. If this trend continues, that is £100 billion a year.”

Related: EU Roaming Charges

What are tech start-ups saying?

So we’ve heard from big business, but there’s more to the UK economy that giant corporations. What does the UK’s booming tech start-up sector have to say about the prospect of Brexit?

Well, it seems that the vast majority of start-ups are keen to stay in the EU. A recent study by Coadec found that 81% of people in the digital start-up sector are hoping for a Remain vote. The sample size was 175, including 126 start-up founders, 26 start-up employees, 19 investors, and four others.

The study revealed that the key issues for the Remainers were:

  • Access to a large single market, with harmonised regulations
  • Free movement of labour, giving access to a talented workforce
  • Having a ‘seat at the table’
  • Stability and security

The key issues for Leavers, meanwhile, were:

  • Sovereignty
  • Over-regulation and red tape

“These results aren’t surprising,” explains Coadec in its survey analysis. “The UK’s start-up community is international in its outlook and in its composition. Founders come to the UK from across Europe (and the world) to launch and grow their businesses. They look to Europe for talented staff to help them grow. And they aim to sell and expand across a trading block of 500 million consumers.”

The Coadec survey isn’t alone in its findings, either. A survey from Tech London Advocates found 87% of start-ups wanted to remain, while research by techUK found that 71% wanted to remain in a reformed EU.

In fact, a Brexit vote could be felt very acutely by many of the UK’s tech start-ups. That’s because of the uncertainty over immigration legislation and the possible loss of free movement of labour.

Robert Newry, who founded technology recruitment service Arctic Shores, believes that the current interest in UK start-ups will “dry up” if we leave the EU:

We currently have 14 employees, four are European, three of whom are first-generation. We need multi-lingual staff and we can’t find all the expertise we need from within the UK. Brexit would cause us not just hiring issues, but contract and revenue ones too.”

Today, Britain’s EU membership guarantees free movement of people. But if we leave, there’s a chance that the UK could place new restrictions on who can enter and leave the UK. However, if the UK negotiates access to the single market post-Brexit, it’s highly likely we’d have to accept free movement of labour as a caveat anyway.

Alex Hemsley, who co-founded Global M, an international technology recruitment start-up based in London, said that being in the EU makes it much easier to hire people in the tech sector:

“The great thing about being a member of the EU when it comes to hiring is that the search for talent is not constrained by borders or hindered by red tape and therefore startups are free to concentrate on sourcing the best talent quickly and efficiently to support their growth.”

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Nick Bolton, who created Rota, an app that connects hospitality companies to rated staff, believes that Brexit could “cripple” a number of tech start-ups in the UK.

“One of the biggest challenges facing tech start-ups is the shortage of good quality developers and many of these highly skilled workers currently come from the EU.

Bolton argues that the only thing worse for fundraising than a declining economy is an uncertain one, and that Brexit is likely to cause both: “Venture capitalists will look at more certain, stable economies and avoid pouring money into London.”

Investment in science research

Technology isn’t just about business, though. The UK is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU, which has significant impact on science and tech.

According to the Royal Society, we receive a greater amount of EU research funding than we contribute. Between 2007 and 2013, we received 8.8 billion euros for research, development, and innovation activities. It’s estimated that we contributed around 5.4 billion euros to Europe’s research coffers in return.

Naturally, scientists welcome this cash, which might explain a Nature poll that revealed 83.46% of researchers oppose Brexit, regardless of whether they intend to vote. A further 4.63% are unsure, and 11.91% want to leave the EU. And even amongst researchers that intend to vote, 80% are against leaving the EU.

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Professor Stephen Hawking called the prospect of Brexit a “disaster for UK science” in a letter to the Times newspaper, signed by over 150 fellows of the Royal Society. The letter reads:

First, increased funding has raised greatly the level of European science as a whole and of the UK in particular because we have a competitive edge. Second, we now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants and have chosen to move with them here.”

However, Professor Angus Dalgleish, of St George’s Hospital at the University of London, who is campaigning for Brexit, argues:

“We are standing up against what is a very large body of people who feel that if we leave the EU it will be a disaster for funding and collaboration – and we completely refute that. The bottom line is that we put far more into Europe than we get out. Any difference we can more than easily make up with the money we would save.”

However, it’s not actually guaranteed that the government would match the EU’s research spending if we vote for Brexit on Thursday. There’s a real risk that the recouped funds could be used elsewhere, leaving tech research high and dry.

How would Brexit affect technology for the average person?

If you’re not spending your days in a Shoreditch café, churning out ‘game-changer’ apps by the dozen, you have to wonder how the EU’s impact on technology affects the average person.

Well, to answer the age-old question of what has the EU ever done for us, here’s a quick run-down:

Scrapping EU roaming charges

Last year, the European Union announced plans to lower the price cap on roaming charges as of April 30, 2016. Better still, roaming charges across Europe will be scrapped entirely from 2017. That means you can’t be charged extra for using your phone texts, minutes, or data when travelling within the European Union.

That’s an impressive feat, and here’s why. Unlike the USA, Europe’s phone market is hugely complex and fragmented, so getting them to operate on a level playing field is very difficult. It may be fair to say that this simply would never have happened without the existence of the EU.

And you care about this, apparently. Research from Broadband Genie recently revealed that 74% of Brits think it’s important for the government to negotiate a deal to eliminate European roaming charges in the event of a Brexit.

brexit 7European Union has scrapped roaming charges across EU (Coming 2017)

Rob Hilborn, Head of Strategy at Broadband Genie, said:

“Like much of the EU debate, it’s hard to cut through the political rhetoric and find hard facts, and that’s no different when it comes to roaming. What is clear is that, regardless of the results on June 23, consumers are demanding the abolishment of EU roaming charges.”

Holding corporations to account

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is also an excellent body for holding corporations to account.

The UK, by comparison, has been less successful. Earlier this year, Chancellor George Osborne came under fire after calling the UK’s tax deal with Google a “major success”, despite backlash against the £130 million agreements leniency.

But the EU has no qualms about putting pressure on Google. Earlier this year, the Commission formally charged Google with unlawfully “preventing competition” in the mobile (read: Android) and search (read: Google) markets. There’s still some deliberation to go through, but the result could a fine against Google for 10% of its global turnover. Considering its annual revenue in 2015 was $74.5 billion, that’s no small sum.

Without the EU, it would be much harder for countries to organise collective pressure on multi-national monopolies.

Protecting privacy

The EU also acts as a buffer against national governments trying to infringe the rights of their citizens. Richard Patterson, the director of security, privacy and comparison website Comparitech, puts it neatly:

“While the in-out debates have focused mostly on immigration, spending and so forth, it’s also important that the public gives consideration to their right to privacy. The UK’s proposed Investigatory Powers bill – or Snooper’s Charter – would make it easier for the government to snoop on its citizens, but so far the EU courts have been holding the bill back as it is at odds with European Law. Without this protection, the public’s privacy could quite literally be at the stake.”

Patterson added that we could end up in a situation where British citizens have “far less protections than their EU counterparts”.

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The UK was split nearly 50/50 on Brexit, but the same certainly isn't true of the technology sector. It seems that, on balance, Britain’s tech and science industries would have liked us to stay in Europe, and that makes sense. Much of the UK’s technology industry is based in London, a city that has benefited massively from the European Union. But in small towns far detached from the hi-tech capital, it’s likely that the benefits are less conspicuous.

Nevertheless, almost everyone gains from research in science and technology, and rulings like the abandonment of EU roaming charges are hard to gloss over. Had the referendum only been open to geeks, a Brexit vote just wouldn't have happened. Fact.

It seems that contrary to popular belief, sometimes, computer says yes.

Related: iPhone 7

The Refresh: Catch up on the latest tech news

What’s your view on Brexit? Let us know in the comments.


June 23, 2016, 9:43 am

Very informative and unbiased for a change.


June 23, 2016, 9:53 am

Uhm hello?

Who the hell cares what Julian "the fugitive" Assange cares about Brexit? I'm at a loss as to why anyone would canvas his opinion.

Simon Bidwell

June 23, 2016, 10:05 am

Wow, what a biased article. So Trusted Reviews feels the need to wade in with its pro-EU opinion.

Trusted reviews is missing the point: this referendum is for the people and about how being part of the EU affects our lives.

What seems to be the only issue for the big companies - imports and exports - is not why we are having this debate. The thing is England can and will set up trade deals if we leave. England will Import and export (do you seriously thing German car producers, French cheese & wine businesses will stop trading with us?).

The big companies and the rich want to stay in the EU simply because migrant workers suppress wages and so the rich make more money. That's it.
Obama poked his nose in again simply because its all about CONTROL and trade. The USA wants to set up something like TTIP with the EU (of which it wants the UK involved) so it can control regulations, sue companies and make more money.
In the real world we are losing our democracy. We are being ruled by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who can impose rules and we have no say. Cameron tried to get some changes recently bur failed p[roving there is no room for flexibility. Cameron will tell you (lie) that he got changes but he did not.

Migration is probably the biggest reason that people want out of the EU. This is not being racist or a Nazi (like some idiots will tell you) its simply about being able to manage the people who come into our country. Why is it wrong or xenophobic to want to control migration? We can see in the UK towns and cities losing their identity, hospitals unable to cope and schools overcrowded. This needs top change.
So we need to regain control of our borders, allow in only people who we need (as opposed to any of the 580,000,000 EU citizens who have free uncontrolled access to the UK at the moment) and regain democracy. Democracy is also about electing who you want to run the country and being able to get rid of them (which we cannot do with the Brussels bureaucrats).

Finally are you telling me that if we leave the EU (which I hope we do) that we wont be able to set up trade deals with anyone? That sounds very short-sighted and if that is your opinion lets hope you aren't employed in that sort of work. We can and will trade and it certainly won't take as long to set-up as the dithering EU takes to agree.
Its time to believe in England, take back control and make this country great again.

If we do leave I think you will see the disintegration of the EU because only Germany will be left to bail all the EU countries out. I think the Netherlands will be next to leave if we do.


June 23, 2016, 11:14 am

I really don't think TR is a site that should be involved in the EU debate at all. Really not appropriate.
Especially considering how one-sided this article is. Very poor show.


June 23, 2016, 11:23 am

You say "The majority of UK exports to the EU, across both services and manufacturing", when in fact no more than 6% of UK business trade with the EU, yet 100% have to follow EU rules and regulations.


June 23, 2016, 12:53 pm

What a horrible article this is. I smell a left wing propaganda from Mr. Sean Keach. I can't believe TR is so damn short-sighted to completely dismiss the importance of democracy and freedom. Centralised governance has never worked... EU is not trying to create the United States of Europe... they are far closer to the EUSSR! Open your eyes people.

Sean Keach

June 23, 2016, 2:07 pm

Hi Matt,

We talked about getting the balance right in this article. We think it’s important to make sure that both sides of the argument are represented.

That said, we felt that it wouldn’t be balanced to weight the argument equally between remain and leave, when the technology industry is leaning so heavily towards remain. There are simply more remain proponents in this industry – naturally, other industries will be differently split – and so we felt it would be disingenuous to portray the two sides as being on equal footing.

After all, that doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation here. Technology companies depend on exporting services and recruiting from the continent disproportionately.

I hope that (perhaps) clears up the approach we wanted to take.

Sean Keach

June 23, 2016, 2:13 pm

Hi Charlie,

I understand your concerns. I can’t deny that freedom and democracy are important. And whether the EU offers that is a separate debate that we could have.

But we really wanted this article to hone in on the technology industry specifically, and I felt it was important not to stray too far from that core topic, otherwise the article balloons into something very different.

There are definitely places to discuss democracy and freedom, but TrustedReviews probably isn’t it. While those issues certainly affect the industry, including them too heavily would dilute the article we were hoping to achieve.

I hope that makes sense!


June 23, 2016, 2:38 pm

I appreciate that completely, and that's exactly why I don't think it's appropriate for you to have published anything on the matter.
The tech industry is one very small component of the entire issue, and so considering it will most likely be the only aspect of the spectrum you will publish any piece on you have just made your site very much a biased one.

I don't expect you to upload financial benefits of leaving, or pay someone to write something on immigration, so this is it. This is all your site will ever publish on the matter. It's really not a very responsible approach to take in my opinion.


June 23, 2016, 2:39 pm

"There are definitely places to discuss democracy and freedom, but TrustedReviews probably isn’t it."

Bingo. Neither is it a place to publish articles on political matters whatsoever.

Sean Keach

June 23, 2016, 2:45 pm

Hey, thanks for responding!

We think it's important that the effect the EU will have on the technology industry, an industry that we cover each day, is important. Just as we'd expect a farming news site to discuss how farmers will be affected.

This intent of this article isn't to promote remain, or leave for that matter. Like I say in the piece, no one should base their vote simply on how Brexit affects the technology industry. This is just to give an overview of what Brexit means for technology, and what people in the industry think.

Sean Keach

June 23, 2016, 2:48 pm

Hey! Thanks for responding again.

When I say that, I mean in a wider sense. It's not right for us to discuss all of the ways the EU impacts democracy and freedom, because we're a website that mainly covers technology. That's why we thought the best focus would be on technology, and broach corollary subjects only if they're relevant.

We'll leave it to the nationals to discuss all of the non-technology issues.

As I said below, this article isn't intended to make the case for remain. I make the point in the piece that you shouldn't base your vote solely on how Brexit affects the technology industry. This article is simply to highlight (1) how Brexit does affect the industry, and (2) what people in the industry think about the issues.

Appreciate your input – always great to hear reader feedback, especially on contentious issues like this!

Sean Keach

June 23, 2016, 2:51 pm

Hi Den72, thanks for responding!

This is very true, but we also have to remember that many of these businesses are large, and their impact on the economy is significant. After all, 44% of our exports go to the EU. And our exports to the EU amount to 13% of GDP. So whatever way you look at it, the EU is important for business.

Appreciate the feedback

Jimmy Hoffa

June 24, 2016, 5:39 am

total bull pucky. reporting the feelings of a few corporatists and some wanna be's isn't reporting on an industry at all. so you think all the people who work in tech are more interested in techy stuff then they are in self rule and being able to vote out the people who represent them or misrepresent them. you don't think tech people care if their neighborhoods are over run with immigrants to the point their kids can't see a doctor in a timely manner or even attend a school that isn't over crowded? yup this is a left wing propaganda piece pure and simple.


June 24, 2016, 12:16 pm

Corporates such as Microsoft - another vast under payer of tax by £billions. Not really concerned about their view. Minuscule vote - over 72% turnout-really? - a significant results (do the sums).

Most of this article is just regurgitated drivel - sorry, but it is...

Robert Lee

June 26, 2016, 8:27 am



June 28, 2016, 5:09 pm

Not sure Stephen Hawking's opinion is any more relevant either.

In a choice between national statism and transnational statism the nationalists won. And it was a bunch of labourites that carried the day. Time was leftists ostensibly cared about those folk.

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