Would a “Brexit” – a British exit from the European Union – be bad news for London’s bankers and lawyers? A capacity crowd from the legal and financial industries gathered in Thomson Reuters auditorium in Canary Wharf in London on April 20 to debate the motion.

To date, a number of high-profile figures – including Prime Minister David Cameron, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and even President Obama – have weighed-in on the issue, and UK voters will decide on the measure on June 23.

A pre-debate vote was taken in the room, which found 67 percent of attendees against the Brexit measure, 17 percent for and 16 percent undecided.

Axel Threlfall, Reuters editor-at-large, opened proceedings by acknowledging the surfeit of referendum coverage the British public faces. Mark Boleat, chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee of the City of London Corporation, responded directly to the motion by saying he didn’t really care whether Brexit would be bad news for bankers or lawyers, but he did care about jobs. He listed many international law firms and companies that focus their European operations in London and around the UK, including UBS, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, the Lloyds market and JP Morgan. Boleat lamented that when he hears complaints about “EU red tape” and asks for examples of such troublesome bureaucracy, he’s generally met with silence.

Eric Phillips, professional support lawyer and member of the pro-Brexit group Lawyers for Britain, argued that “capital and knowledge –  the tools of our trade –  should know no borders.” He urged a drive towards global standards, whilst taking advantage of the UK’s concentration of City talent and common law system. He highlighted the possibility of lifting the bankers’ bonus cap, were Brexit to occur – a prospect no doubt popular with bankers, but unlikely to win much new support outside the City.

Rhodri Thompson, QC argued against Brexit measures, emphasising the value of the single market to the UK’s economy, a point made previously by “all four Prime Ministers since 1990, Lady Thatcher, the present Tory Chancellor, the G20, the IMF, the World Bank, the [Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development], the Bank of England, and our closest and most powerful ally, the USA.” He flagged that day’s controversial intervention by the Mayor Boris Johnson, in which he insulted President Obama, calling him a “hypocrite.” He pointed out that although certain trade deals had been floated, “the need to protect our services industry seems to have passed the Leave campaign by completely.”

Lord Norman Lamont, former chancellor and vice president of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group, made the political case for Brexit, urging voters to consider sovereignty and parliamentary democracy, rather than the narrow financial interests of bankers and lawyers. Although both professions are impacted by EU initiatives such as the bankers’ bonus cap and the mooted financial transaction tax, he noted that there are wider issues to consider. Monetary union, fiscal integration and an elected parliament were never promised when the UK joined the EU, he noted.

Lord Lamont went on to describe Europe today as “a country under construction,” and closed powerfully by reminding the audience that “the world is going to change anyway. The EU has changed profoundly since its creation. We only get a chance occasionally to have our voice heard… I would like to get our country back.”

The audience raised several insightful points during the Q&A: the pro-Brexit camp often lauds the UK’s strength as the fifth-largest economy in the world, but is EU membership in fact a key part of that strength?

One audience member posed that outside of the discussion of bankers’ and lawyers’ narrow interests, had pro-Brexit proponents stopped to consider what might happen to their clients if the UK voted to leave? This was a key point of contention as it has become a persistent rumour that the banks would all leave the UK should Brexit be approved, despite reassurances that organizations, specifically HSBC, have publicly stated that they’d stay in London regardless of the outcome?

At the end of the debate, a final vote was counted among attendees, which found 73 percent convinced that Brexit would be bad news for London’s bankers and lawyers, 22 percent for the split and 5 percent undecided.

All eyes will be on whether the UK at-large agrees when voters head to the polls in June. And follow Thomson Reuters UKI on Twitter for more on the next legal debate.

This post was written by Tom Bangay, content manager with Thomson Reuters Thought Leadership team in the UK.

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