British Companies Avoid Taking Sides in the Debate Over an E.U. Exit

Steven Woolfe, a British Member of the European Parliament, concedes that he should have checked his facts before setting off a social media campaign against one of Britain’s leading supermarket chains.

But when Mr. Woolfe, who wants Britain to leave the European Union, last year mistakenly accused the chain, Sainsbury’s, of bankrolling those who want to remain in the bloc — using the hashtag #ShameOnYouSainsburys — the company quickly sprang into action Folk Fests.

British Companies Avoid Taking Sides in the Debate Over an E.U. Exit 1

Within hours, it had contacted his office, insisting that it was not funding either side in the debate, stating that it had no plans to do so, and requesting that he correct his message.

Mr. Woolfe, a member of the U.K. Independence Party, did just that but also drew a lesson — one that could have a big impact ahead of a British referendum on June 23 on whether to leave the bloc. Polls suggest the vote could be close.

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Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of EasyJet, had suggested that a vote for Britain to leave the European Union could mean a return to the days when flying was “reserved for the elite.” Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“I think that was a wonderful piece of true consumer democracy,” he said, recalling the episode. He added that companies must appreciate that they face a backlash if they speak out on British membership of the union.

Many already seem to have gotten his point.

Concerns about taking sides on this divisive issue prompt a significant number of high-profile companies to lie low. They worry that expressing any opinion about staying in the bloc or leaving could lead to a backlash from customers or shareholders who hold the opposing view or even split their own boardrooms.

That reticence is creating a challenge for the government of Prime Minister David Cameron and other groups campaigning to keep Britain inside the bloc. They hoped that unambiguous support from businesses would highlight Britain’s economic risks of breaking away from the European Union and help persuade wavering voters to oppose withdrawal.

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Many British companies have a direct interest in staying, particularly if they import from or export to the bloc’s single market of around 500 million people. Britain currently has automatic access. Multinational businesses that have made Britain an important hub for their European and global operations are similarly concerned. Other companies fret that a vote to leave would destabilize financial markets.