A lively debate was sparked at a top Birmingham restaurant this month as some of the country’s leading influential figures gathered in front of a local business audience to discuss the impending EU Referendum.

Opus at Cornwall Street, a restaurant known for its influential business customers, hosted 80 guests to participate in a stay or leave debate, in which trade, currency and sovereignty, as well as the impact Brexit would have on business, dominated the discussion.  

The panel, chaired by Trinity Mirror’s editor-in-chief Marc Reeves, included chair of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign and Labour MP for Edgbaston Gisela Stuart, Secretary General of Muslims for Britain Saquib Bhatti, with both fighting strongly for ‘Vote Leave’ believing Brexit would give control back to Government and strengthen its powers.

In the corner calling for the UK to remain was Professor Simon Green, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean at Aston University and Australian-born Fiona Allan, Artistic Director and CEO of Birmingham Hippodrome.

In a bid to see how Birmingham professionals will be voting on Thursday, 23rd June, the audience were asked to reveal whether they were in or out before and after the debate. An overwhelming majority voted to remain in the EU, with only Fiona Allan changing her mind after proceedings, saying: “To begin with, I was 90% in the remain camp, reserving 10% to acknowledge that I don’t know everything. At the end, I’m 100% in.”  

Both Ms Stuart and Mr Bhatti gave strong arguments for the UK to leave the EU, expressing that with more control, Britain would be able to make decisions that would directly benefit it.

The outspoken MP and most senior Labour figure in the leave campaign said that she felt the democratic structure was “crumbling” over the last few years and the EU was unnecessary.

“The EU was structured at a time when you had global blocks, for example, with the Cold War and East/West divide. But that has all changed. We now have the World Trade organisation which means the EU is redundant. We’ve got flows of capital which we’ve never had before and in 2008 we learnt that the EU couldn’t control it. We’ve also got the most significant movement of people since World War II and yet, if you look at what is happening in Turkey, Greece and beyond, it’s clear that the EU is incapable of dealing with it.”

For Mr Bhatti, who is director at Younis Bhatti & Co Ltd and studied at The London School of Economics and Political Science, said he was anxious to get more “facts” about exiting the EU to the wider public, while stressing Britain would be far more prosperous if it were to leave.

He said: “I wasn’t born when we first joined the EU and for me it has been a real fact finding mission to discover why we’re being dictated to and why we lack control to make our own decisions. We want a strong Britain that has control over its free trade policies.

“The question for me is do we want MEPs or bureaucrats in Brussels dictating how our laws should be or do we want the MPs we’ve elected here deciding that? For me, it all comes down to control and sovereignty and so I’m 100% out.”

The 30-year-old accountant also touched upon the key issues for Muslims surrounding Brexit, saying: “For British Muslims, our main concern is the rise of far right extremism across Europe. There was the right extremists in Austria a couple of weeks ago around the first round of presidential elections, which is a worry to the community.”

On the opposite side of the camp, Mr Green, who is German-born and has lived in Birmingham for the past 20 years, said that staying in the EU would benefit business, trade and recruitment, as well as noting that Britain “has an awful lot to give to Europe too”.

He said: “I’m fully in the remain camp and for one very simple reason, in the world that we live in, Britain is stronger when it cooperates with its partners.

“Of course, Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world. Yet, this notion that if we leave the EU we will get a better free trade deals with countries like America and China, well it’s a fantasy. Yes, we’re a large economy but we’re much smaller than the ones we want to be dealing with. But, if we set up deals with 28 other member states backing us, we have far more power.”

For Ms Allan, remaining a culturally vibrant state, as well as the necessary funding the EU brings, was at the heart of her debate.

She said: “If there was one compelling reason to stay, it’s the free-flow of people and ideas between the UK and the rest of Europe. We have such a strong cultural economy and life here and I can’t grasp any reason why you would seek to restrict that.

“Our creative industries are thriving because of the interaction of people and ideas across the borders. From the smallest gallery to the largest cultural institute, I can’t think of one that hasn’t benefited from European money and collaboration, including Birmingham landmarks The ICC and Symphony Hall. We also have another opportunity in 2023 for a city in the UK to become the European Capital of Culture, which will bring so much income and tourism to us. But this will only happen if we remain.”

The EU debate was the first  of ‘Opus In Conversation’, a series of discussions hosted by the city-centre restaurant to talk about matters important to the city.

Irene Allan, director at Opus at Cornwall Street, said: “We know that many of the city’s most important conversations take place over lunch or dinner in our restaurant. That’s why we wanted to bring those conversations from private to public with our ‘Opus In Conversation’ series.

“The EU, and the decision of if we should stay or leave, is a huge topic right now and yet something that so many people are uneducated about. With one in five people still not sure on how they’re going to vote, we wanted to simplify the facts by bringing in some of the city’s most prominent political, educational and business leaders to discuss the main issues surrounding the referendum.

“The panel were superb and brilliantly outspoken on the night and we hope our guests have got more to think about now when making that all-important vote on 23rd June.”

To hear the entire debate, visit here: https://soundcloud.com/clive-reeves-pr/opus-eu-debate-20th-may-2016

The restaurant’s next ‘Opus in Conversation’ evening will be held on Friday, 15th July and will be discussing the importance of bees to our future, as well as what Birmingham can do to better encourage them in an urban environment. For free tickets, call 0121 200 2323.

PR by Clive Reeves PR Birmingham