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PM hires pro-EU business chiefs for referendum battle: Leaders of easyJet and Asda drafted in to act as 'sounding board' for issues facing industry

Business heavyweights including the bosses of Asda and easyJet have been drafted in to advise David Cameron on EU reform, it was revealed last night.

Industry leaders sitting on the Business Advisory Group will be a 'sounding board' on issues facing industry – including the renegotiation of Britain's membership of the European Union.

It will fuel concerns among eurosceptics that the Prime Minister is determined to get a 'yes' vote in the in/out referendum and has lined up business chiefs who are in favour of maintaining our ties with Brussels.

EasyJet chief Carolyn McCall has said that without actions by the EU her airline would not exist, adding: 'EU legislation ensures that passengers have a consistent set of consumer rights and increasingly a common set of safety rules as well.'

There were also reports yesterday that Mr Cameron may bring forward the date of the referendum to June next year.

The vote must be held before the end of 2017, but an early poll would allow him to take advantage of his political opponents being in disarray and would fall before France and Germany become preoccupied with their own general elections in 2017.

Government sources insisted this was 'pure speculation'.

The Business Advisory Group, which also includes the bosses of BP, Rolls Royce and Virgin Money, will give advice to the Prime Minister ahead of the vote.

Downing Street said it will also 'act as a sounding board through which ministers can listen to and debate concerns and priorities facing industry, and can discuss the Government's economic and business policies around key areas such as productivity, European reform and housing'.

Santander chairman Ana Botin, another member of the panel, said: 'Dialogue between government and business is vital to growth and prosperity.'

The announcement came as the Prime Minister yesterday set off on a four-day trip to South East Asia to boost trade.

Mr Cameron wants to encourage economic links with a part of the world Downing Street believes has 'untapped potential' for Britain.

He will arrive this morning in Jakarta, Indonesia, before heading to Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – where he will be the first sitting British prime minister to visit.

Visiting the headquarters of Asian trade bloc Asean today, he will push for progress on a free trade deal with the EU, which the Government believes could boost the British economy by £3billion a year.

He also wants to strengthen ties with the developing economies to reduce the UK's dependence on European trade.

Mr Cameron will also use the visit to hold talks with leaders about tackling terrorism, amid fears Islamic State is trying to gain a foothold in the region.

As the Prime Minister left for the trip, it was announced that he has also ordered officials to draw up plans for a possible new intervention in Libya.

The country has become a haven for IS since the 2011 Nato mission that led to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi.

Options could include sending in military teams to train local troops to take on IS fighters. Mr Cameron said IS can only be defeated 'if we take action at home, overseas and online and if we unite with countries around the world against this common enemy'.

UK Foreign Office rules out air strikes against Isis targets in Libya
by Ewen MacAskill and Patrick Wintour

FCO says supporting progress towards UN-mediated ceasefire and stable political settlement in Libya is immediate priority.

The British Foreign Office has ruled out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Libya in response to last month’s beach attack in Tunisia that left 30 British tourists dead.

The prime minister, David Cameron, ordered government departments to draw up contingency plans for Libya before his overseas trip this week to south-east Asia. Those responsible for the attack in the resort of Sousse are believed to have been trained in Libya.

He told officials that if the Libyans can put together a credible government, the UK should have possible plans in place to help. He asked the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Home Office to look at ways the UK could help. The main area under consideration is sending help to try to improve border security. Also under consideration is help with the training of police, which would primarily be a matter for the Home Office, though the MoD might also contribute.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “Supporting progress towards a UN-mediated ceasefire and a stable political settlement in Libya is our immediate priority. The UK has no plans to launch air strikes over Libya. We are working closely with international and regional partners to support the Libyans to tackle terror groups and are discussing how to use existing UN security council resolutions to sanction terrorist groups in Libya, including groups affiliated to Isis.”

In a sign of concern about the state of Libya and Britain’s post-conflict intervention, the Commons foreign affairs committee is launching an inquiry into the government’s foreign policy with respect to the north African country. The inquiry has a parallel to the one into the invasion of Iraq, albeit on a much smaller, time-limited and less well-resourced scale.

It will look at strategic analysis undertaken before the intervention regarding its implications and consequences; the extent and effectiveness of post-conflict planning by the UK and its allies; and Britain’s engagement with Libya in the aftermath of fighting in 2011.

The inquiry will also look at the UK’s withdrawal in 2014, and its engagement with the two competing administrations and various militias in Libya since, including the extent to which it is still seen as an ally in the country.

Scots universities campaign against UK leaving EU
by David Maddox

SCOTLAND’s leading universities are part of a major new campaign to persuade British voters to keep the UK in the European Union.

The Universities UK group of 133 universities from across the country – which includes famous names such as St Andrews, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Strathclyde – yesterday launched the campaign to highlight the “overwhelmingly positive impact” being in the EU has on higher education in this country.

However, the move may not be reciprocated by Universities Scotland, the umbrella group north of the Border, which is currently “taking soundings” on whether to take a position and was neutral during the independence referendum.

The event in London saw university vice-chancellors joined by pro-EU politicians from across parties to make the case for staying in the EU.

It came amid reports that the referendum could take place in less than a year’s time in June next year with negotiations still under way between the UK Government and EU member governments over changing the UK’s terms of membership ahead of the referendum.

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of the Universities UK group, told the event in London that they must “stand up and be counted”.

She said: “It is abundantly clear that the UK’s membership of the European Union has an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world-leading universities, enhancing university research and teaching.

“The case for staying in Europe is about ensuring the future prosperity of the UK, it’s about maximising the chances of new discoveries that enhance the society in which we live, it’s about the UK’s standing in the world, it’s about British jobs and it’s about opportunities for British people now and in the future.”

Dame Julia pointed out that 14 per cent of academic staff in UK universities are from the other EU countries and 125,000 EU students studied at UK higher education institutions in 2013.

She said this generated £2.27 billion and created 19,000 jobs.

In addition, she said the UK receives £1.2 billion in European research funding each year and is the largest beneficiary of EU research funds.

However, a spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said that it may remain neutral as an organisation. Currently, three of its members – Glasgow School of Art, the Royal Conservatoire Scotland and the University of the Highlands and Islands – are not members of Universities UK while the rest have signed up to its campaign.

She said: “We are currently taking soundings and a decision won’t be made until September but we remained neutral in the independence referendum.”

She added: “There are positives for being in the EU such as free movement but there are negatives such as EU students being entitled to free tuition in Scotland which is very 
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