Two recent events have made me grateful for the UK’s somewhat hesitant approach regarding closer European Union integration. The first is the economic situation in Greece. The second is current stand-off in relations between Switzerland (itself not a member of the EU, but a signatory of the Schengen Agreement) and Libya.
In the first instance, The wealthier countries in the Euro Zone (notably Germany) will be obliged to bail Greece out of its financial quagmire whilst still trying to bring their own economies back in line. That is going to hurt ordinary people in Germany at a time when it is still paying for reunification (levied through an additional tax of 5.5% of each taxpayer’s income – after income tax), twenty years after reunification.
The prospects for other countries in the Euro Zone, such as Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and particularly Latvia, do not look much better.
Here in the UK, our own finances are far from rosy, but at least we have far more power to regulate our own economy to suit our own requirements than the members of the Euro Zone do.
Regarding the second issue over the tensions between Switzerland and Libya, the escalation in the standoff between the two nations has resulted in all signatories of the Schengen Agreement being obliged to implement a Schengen area travel ban on senior Libyan officials (including former Boney M singer, Colonel Gaddafi). Italy is not particularly happy about this, as it is trying to retain good relations with Libya over energy supplies and to stem the flow of African immigrants into southern Italy through closer cooperation with Libya on this issue.
For me, these issues highlight the importance of a country’s independence in matters of finance and diplomacy. Whilst it is true that multi-national companies and global financial markets are what truly determine the performance of countries’ economies, it remains within the capabilities of politicians to seek to regulate the terms under which these operate in order to protect the interests of the state and its citizens – in the UK at least. In the Eurozone, the hands of individual countries’ politicians are tied, and whilst politicians in the UK are not the most popular people at the moment, they are at least elected (well, the ones in the lower house are anyway).
Similarly, what would previously have been a bilateral issue for Switzerland and Libya to resolve between themselves has now dragged most of the Continent into a battle of wills, in a way which is reminiscent of the political folly of the old system of alliances which dragged us into World War One; not that the current spat between the Swiss and the Libyans is likely to go quite that far. Ironically, the UK, which hasn’t had the best of relationships with Libya in the past, not being a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, is outside this battle of wills.
I am a lapsed Federal Europhile. I bought into the whole European federalist ideal for good reasons. I concede that there are benefits to EU membership. I recognise that from a pan-European standpoint, EU membership has transformed the economies and living standards of southern European states, Ireland, and thanks to tax payers’ money from the wealthier nations, more recently it is doing the same in eastern Europe (we shalln’t dwell on the fact that British tax payers effectively funded the export of hundreds of skilled Peugot jobs from Ryton near Coventry to Slovakia to take advantage of the cheaper running and employment costs in Slovakia). The wealthier nations within the EU have invested in these countries’ economies, where labour has often been cheaper. I was delighted when we signed up to Maastricht Treaty and completely bought into a federal Europe of regions, based on the concept of subsidiarity.
Unfortunately, in the eighteen years since sweeping reforms of the EU were promised, little has changed and the principle of subsidiarity has all but been ignored. There have been token efforts to give the European Parliament more powers, thereby making the one constituent part of EU government which is directly elected by EU citizens slightly more useful. The Commission still retains far too much power and the fact that the appointed Commission can dictate to our government (derived from our parliament) tells you all you need to know.
The EU has also more than doubled in size from 12 to 27 member states, diluting the influence of constituent states and necessitating reforms in an attempt to introduce qualified majority voting on key decisions rather than the formerly required unanimity – all without any consultation of UK citizens, when such a decision, which has a huge effect on our influence within the EU clearly should have been subject to a referendum.
I now have particular issues with two aspects of the development of the European Union. The first is implied in its name and is explicit in the Maastricht Treaty, in which the signatories are “…RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity…”. In spite of that commitment to subsidiarity (all too absent in reality), whichever way you look at it, this is a dilution of democracy. We citizens have absolutely no powers to remove the European Commission, which is in practice responsible for most of the decisions emanating from the European Union bodies which affect us. And I’m not referring to the silly tabloid stories about straight bananas or crisp flavours, but important decisions which have legal precedence over our own country’s laws. We have no direct power over who can and can’t be members of the Commission and the unfortunate truth about many who have gone on to become commissioners is that they have, shall we say, questionable pasts in their own domestic political spheres.
After spending time living on the Continent, it’s easy to get swept away on the notion that closer European political integration will lead to a more continental style of life in the UK, where UK citizens appreciate café culture and philosophical discussions rather than chats about beer and football. But, increasing converging European integration will not lead to such a development. Instead, it will have exactly the opposite effect. It will mean that regardless of the country you visit within the United States of Europe, all the high streets will look exactly the same (many would say that they do already) and that really is a shame. Vive la différence!
Closer EU integration will not change the nature of the British psyche. You can’t change a nation’s world view through political integration. Peoples’ views change through exposure to those from other cultures and this happens, not through seeking to melt all the different cultures into one, but through experiencing other people and traditions in their own contexts, through travel and contact with other cultures.
The second major issue I have with the development of the European Union is the fact that the idea of a single, federal European Union has missed the boat by about 50 years. When Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe (and he wasn’t including the UK in this proposed United States of Europe, by the way) the world was a very different place, and Europe had ravished by war and internal conflict for centuries. There was a desire on the part of many to foster closer European integration so that such horrific events could not be revisited on future generations. Many claim that this desire itself and the following acts towards closer political integration are what have maintained peace within Europe over the second half of the 20th century (putting the conflicts in Yugoslavia to one side). It would be foolish to dismiss this sincere desire for peace within Europe, but it is not the European project, but NATO and the threat from communism which really maintained the peace since the end of World War 2. The European project merely happened and was helped along against this backdrop.
The key to peace after World War 2 was the very real threat of Mutually Assured Destruction between the NATO countries on the one side and the countries under the Soviet influence on the other. When the Berlin Airlift was organised in 1948, the citizens of West Berlin (and consequently the states in the soon to be German Federal Republic) were left in no doubt as to who their allies were. Once the lines were drawn and the Iron Curtain established, the spheres of influence were set and it was the potential Soviet threat which bound the countries of the West together – not the European Union.
Communication and technology have made the world a much smaller place than it was fifty years ago and we should not be looking to forge a political union with our neighbours, but we should be looking further afield, to the emerging economies of India, China, and also those of the Commonwealth, and seeking to establish further trade links with these countries, as well as returning to developing our own domestic industries in all sectors once again, especially manufacturing, so that we can source products and services locally wherever possible.
The minimum wage may have sounded like a great idea in theory, but in practice it simply prices makes the UK too expensive as a manufacturing base. Our workforce will always be more expensive than workers overseas, and whilst this is true, the jobs will go overseas. You can deal with this in three ways:
1. Isolationism and protectionism. Make imports massively expensive (we can’t do that as part of the EU).
2. Eliminate the minimum wage.
3. Develop core specialities – things our citizens can do better than any other country, and really sell those skills to the world – not just within the EU.
We have a model democracy in the UK. It is one which has been copied throughout the world. It is not without its faults, but it has been consistent for centuries, whereas many of our neighbours have changed regimes incessantly, running between republics, empires, dictatorships, monarchies – some (like France) within decades. We have a system enshrined around long-standing and well-tested principles. We have a fundamentally different view on issues of law which suit our culture. Any attempt to depose this with some kind of Napleonic code of law would not suit our own culture, nor that of many of our neighbours. Our strength is in variety.
In an international context, a single European voice may carry more weight than the voice of the UK on its own, but what if the single European voice is diametrically opposed to the views of the UK? Are we really better off?
My academic background is in Modern Languages (based around politics and current affairs), which I studied at university. I have lived and worked for a reasonable amount of time on the Continent. I like our fellow Europeans, but I like them for the variety in culture, traditions, and world outlooks. It would be a sad day if that were lost in the name of creating a European super state, which most people in the UK do not want. I am angry that a generation of voters who voted for a free market in the early 1970s were deceived by successive governments who have moved (without public consent) towards political union – and you only have to speak to those who voted in favour to hear how angry they are now. I am even more angry that subsequent generations have had absolutely no say on the matter.
At a time where technology and disillusionment with our current political leaders is leading to a decentralisation of politics, and would appear to be heading towards people power, it makes no sense to continue to forge ahead with a European super state, supported by few of the citizens of Europe.
A few months ago I particularly enjoyed a throwaway comment by a member of the panel on Question Time. Her comment was “We need to be inside the European Union. We don’t want to be a country like Switzerland or Norway”. If she had wanted to argue the point against continuing membership of the EU, she couldn’t have done it better. You don’t pick two countries which are consistently ranked in the top ten highest standards of living in the whole world!
Both Switzerland and Norway enjoy the benefits of EU membership through bilateral agreements with the EU, without ceding political power to unelected bodies in foreign countries. If they’re an example of how it shouldn’t be done, then I’m all in favour!
On the minimum wage: all around the world there have been countries that introduced minimum wages, and countries that have raised their minimum wage, in almost every case business lobbies have bleated that having, or raising, a minimum wage will harm productivity, harm competitiveness, cost jobs and so forth and so on. But you know what, in not one single case have their protest been borne out by reality.
It all depends at which level a minimum wage is set.
Peugeot moving their manufacturing base from Ryton to Slovakia. Slovakia has one of the lowest minimum wage rates.That’s the first one that comes to mind for obvious reasons. I think that one’s pretty much been borne out by reality.
“Peugeot blamed ‘high production and logistical costs’ for its decision.” – from the BBC News website.
Looking beyond that, it’s common practice (and you know this) for manufacturers to look to China and India for cheaper labour. Why? Because they can pay skilled workers considerably less money. Our manufacturers have done it, our IT companies have done it, our call centres have done it.
It’s easy for us to moralise on this, but there are few manufacturers (Miele being one of them) who prefer to continue to pay the labour costs to manufacture in the EU, because they appreciate the other advantages of doing so rather than just considering the labour cost. It’s a simple case of maximising your profit, and whilst my heart may be in favour of the minimum wage, my common sense head says ‘no’.
In any case, the horse has already bolted on this issue. We can never hope to reduce our labour costs to those of China – nor should we try to. We are where we are.
The minimum wage has little effect on the kind of labour that goes on in industrial factories anyway – they’re paid above minimum wage anyway, always have been. The people impacted by minimum wage are much likely to be cleaners and serving staff – people who are not optional.
And, no, we’re never going to compete on Labour costs with China, but this is no bad thing. The extent to which outsourcing manufacturing to foreign countries moves the money made by those products abroad is vastly overstated, consider the iPhone. We should be looking to provide high end technology not monkeys on a line; it’s the only way we can maintain our kind of lifestyle.
The Slovakians are obviously paid less all round – even the skilled workers. That’s why Peugeot made the decision they did and why many other companies consider to do so.
I probably agree about our having to concentrate on high end technology now, given where we are – there’s certainly no going back in that respect.
The problem we have of course is what happens to our people who would previously have been the ‘monkeys on the line’ when their jobs have gone.