Remaining in the EU is essential if the UK wants to be a global technology leader

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: Brexit and the UK technology sector - read our analysis of the implications

Here at Computer Weekly, we want what’s best for the UK tech sector and the people who work there – that’s why we believe that remaining in the European Union (EU) is vital at such a critical time in the transformation of our industry.

But let’s be clear – if the country votes for a Brexit on 23 June, it’s not a binary outcome that means the end of UK IT. Innovative tech companies will still do well, startups will still find customers and investors, IT leaders will still transform their organisations, and IT professionals will still be in high demand.

We believe, however, that being in the EU means that everyone will be able to do all those things – and more – so much better than they will in an isolationist UK.

Already most interest groups in UK tech have come out in favour of remaining – tech startups, leading suppliers like BT and others, industry bodies such as TechUK, and many top CIOs. This is a sector in broad consensus about the UK’s role on the international technology stage.

What if we leave? Let’s look at some of the major challenges facing UK IT at the moment.

The biggest issue is skills – the lack of digital skills across the board has a huge economic cost, as much as £63bn a year according to some estimates. We simply don’t have enough people with the tech skills we need in this country, and we’re already heavily reliant on EU migrants – and non-EU – to fill those gaps.

Tightened immigration rules for non-EU IT workers has already caused problems for tech startups and for IT departments – 10 years ago there were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and South African IT professionals in IT teams, for example, but they have largely gone elsewhere since it became much harder to obtain working visas.

If a tech startup can’t find the skills it needs, or an IT supplier, or an internet company, or the CIO of a multinational, they will move jobs to where they can find them.

There are measures in place to address the skills gap, but they are largely focused around education and early careers such as apprenticeships. Even if they all work – and progress is slow – it’s a decade at least until the additional skills mature. With the pace of the digital revolution accelerating, we simply cannot wait that long.

It’s also fair to say that IT is among the most international of industries and as such it matters little whether we’re in the EU, since our tech sector can trade globally online. That’s true – but that international perspective is also why so much overseas investment comes into UK IT. We’re the bridge to Europe for every country where English is the language of business and technology. You don’t build one end of a bridge in a dead end.

In telecoms, you could argue that leaving the EU would rid us of state aid rules that prevent the government from large-scale investment in fibre broadband of the sort seen in countries beyond Europe. But with the majority of forecasters predicting at least a short-term decline in the UK economy after Brexit, spending priorities will be elsewhere and broadband cash hard to come by. We risk leaving our digital economy stuck in the mud.

Let’s also not forget that the EU has worked to bring down mobile roaming charges across Europe – which you can bet would go straight back up if we leave.

The EU, for its many faults, has been a bulwark against the excesses of US tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Facebook. It’s unlikely that a post-Brexit UK would sign up to EU data protection rules and would tend towards the more laissez-faire US attitude. Think about the effects on privacy and surveillance of a UK government unhindered by the EU courts that have ruled against threats from transferring our data overseas.

The UK government has been a leading proponent of the EU’s Digital Single Market (DSM), and the opportunities that presents for exporting our digital capabilities across Europe. Leaving the nascent DSM would be a huge blow for tech startups, and a big influence on where US and Asian IT companies decide to invest. Many of those startups – often funded by US and other overseas investors – would no doubt find Berlin a more convenient hub to build their future.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s the timing of a potential Brexit that would harm UK tech the most.

The digital revolution is in its early days – the equivalent stage of waving red flags to warn pedestrians of a passing car – and the next decade will determine the economies, businesses, governments and workers that become leaders of the digital world.

The UK is exceptionally well placed to capitalise on that opportunity – but even a short-term economic shock from Brexit would be enough to put us back by years. Once we lose that leadership role, it will be too late to win it back. Talk to the majority of experts in UK technology and they will tell you that EU membership has played a vital role in getting us to the starting blocks as one of the favourites. We cannot afford a false start.

Of course, Computer Weekly’s opinion and the future of the tech sector will not be the deciding factor when people come to place their vote on 23 June. But for the importance of the UK’s role in the global technology industry and our own digital economy, we hope they vote to remain.