Posts Tagged ‘Britain’

France. Ha ha.

January 14, 2012

To say the French and British aren’t exactly in bed with one another is probably something of an under-statement. The British have always regarded the French as arrogant. For their part, the French tend to regard the British as awkward and difficult, clinging to a past that has long since evaporated and switching in emotions between colonial guilt and nostalgia.

In his autobiography, Tony Blair has an interesting description of French premier Nicolas Sarkozy. Blair met him before he won office and says:

“Nicolas and I had certain things in common… However, we differed in one respect: he had superabundant self-confidence. There was not a glimmer of self-doubt. As we walked through an avenue of trees that led down from the villa, he talked frankly and with complete conviction about his own victory: ‘I will win. I will become president.’

From anyone else it would have sounded vain or even slightly mad, but he said it with a combination of charm and clarity that made it seem entirely factual. The British would have wanted to cut someone who talked like that down to size, but I could see that the French would go for it. It was an attitude which had passion, elan and also that touch of arrogance which in some small way defines France, and which in some small way I admire. I could see them looking at Nicolas and saying: Now that’s a president.”

I must say that, unlike Blair, I’m not hugely enamoured with arrogant confidence. I think I’d probably have just felt like punching Sarkozy. But then I, unlike Blair, never have had the ambition to be prime minister.

Sarkozy has not been winning many friends in Britain recently. In December, Britain was forced to veto a new EU treaty that had precious little to do with saving the euro and quite a lot to do with giving more powers to Brussels. It’s difficult to know exactly what went on in that room of 27 leaders, but the outcome – with Cameron isolated, unable to sign up to a French-backed treaty that would bizarrely have placed an onerous burden on the City rather than actually done anything useful to salvage the euro project – had all the hallmarks of a French stitch-up.

Of course, the French position is entirely justifiable. Britain has never been a full part of the EU – it remains outside the euro, Schengen and the social chapter. So France might be quite entitled to ask: why are you in this EU club at all? By isolating Britain, Sarkozy clearly has more weight – along with German chancellor Angela Merkel – to steer things in the direction that he wants.

Troublesome Britain. Arrogant French.

My personal view is that Cameron did the right thing but for perhaps the wrong reasons. One of my arguments with the Conservatives is that they are somewhat incoherent on Europe. The party is divided over Europe, with the consequence that they say nothing, which, given the importance of the EU in British life, is clearly wrong. The party has been forced into this ridiculous position by the somewhat nutty eurosceptic movement in the UK – and the best thing for the Tories would be to decide exactly what relationship they want with Europe. Deciding this might also please the French.

Yesterday, Standard & Poor’s, a US ratings agency, downgraded French sovereign debt by one notch – from AAA to AA+. French government advisors responded in usual kind – by attacking the ratings agency in question, and saying this didn’t really matter since France is still a comparatively stable economy able to service its debts.

True, perhaps. But the S&P downgrade is still significant.

One can rant and rave at rating agencies until one is blue in the face – as the EU very often does – and there is a good argument to be made that they have too much power in the world. A friend of mine, who used to work at a rating agency, has endless stories about the politics involved behind ratings – and how his office would often get called by the finance minister of one country or another if a downgrade was expected, to perhaps steer things down another course.

This is not an indication that rating agencies are unimportant, as some in Paris might have you believe. Not only does the downgrade signal that things are not completely rosy in Paris, but also on a more practical level they make it more costly for France to borrow money. And that is going to hurt the recovery. It will also cause the euro’s rescue package to wobble since France is one of the biggest backers of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).

Of course one has to be careful of schadenfreude. The UK has its own distinctive problems and may very well be in recession (again!) But the downgrade of France holds in it a warning for those eurozone leaders trying to resolve the crisis. National arrogance is misplaced. Solidarity would serve the euro-group much better.

And, for Cameron, reading the reasons for the S&P downgrade might not be a bad idea. Austerity is all very well – says S&P – but it cannot work on its own, without solid policies to stimulate growth. This is of course what that maverick economist John Maynard Keynes once said – you have to grow your way out of a recession, not cut your way out.

There are signs that Cameron, which launched his premiership on the ticket of fierce austerity, might be heeding such advice and recognising that there is a complex balance to be struck.

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A very British eurosceptic

March 14, 2010

There are very few things as galling as being at a party and being reminded, by way of introduction, about a negative stereotype from your country as though it automatically applies to you.

If you happen to meet a woman from Naples, talk about where pizza comes from, don’t talk about the mafia.

If you meet someone from Germany, talk about sausages and beer, not the Nazis.

If you meet Russians, talk about the finest vodka, not the intricacies of assassinating enemies with rare radioactive substances.

If you meet someone from Belgium, talk about moules frites rather than how the only ever famous person they’ve produced in the last 50 years prefers Hollywood to the Manekin Pis.

If you meet… well, you get the idea.

So, if you meet someone from the UK, try to avoid asking the question: “so how come, in a nation of highly educated people, so many are against the EU?” As though being against the EU is in anyway synonymous with stupidity.

It is particularly frustrating to have such a conversation with someone who refuses to see that there may actually be flaws in the European project, and that being against the EU is an intellectually justifiable position. The problem is that the British press rarely seem to make such intellectual arguments – focusing on the push to prohibit bendy bananas and such like.

So, for all die-hard federalists out there, who I may one day meet at a party, if you have to broach the subject of British eurosceptism, here is a very quick summary of why the thinking men of Britain might be slightly wary of further EU integration.

First of all, it is actually much harder to make an argument against the EU than for it. The moment one starts speaking against the EU, one is branded a nationalist. Or possibly a fascist.

But the point with most sensible eurosceptics – and there are quite a few nutters to – is that they are not arguing against the basic principles of the EU. Free movement of people. Free trade. Free right of residence. It is absolutely incredible to think that now one can drive all the way from the Russian border to the tip of Calais and not once be hassled by border police once. Amazing. That is the freedom that our grandparents never dreamt of.

But it is also a freedom that doesn’t need a centralised Brussels government. I was reminded that it is all to do with schengen, which is part of the EU – and something that the UK has never signed up to. Great. Love schengen. But it doesn’t need to be part of the EU. Why can it not simply be an ad-hoc agreement between countries?

Free trade? Excellent. Great. But it wasn’t the EU that created this. It was EFTA. The EU simply absorbed EFTA and then claimed that free trade could not exist without tighter centralisation. Ever Closer Union, to use the 1950s term.

So, much of what the EU stands for is worthwhile, but this does not mean that these great freedoms could not be realised in other ways.

The main problem with the EU, I think, is its dishonesty. Having spent more than five years covering the Brussels beat for various media, and seeing how the monstrosity operates at close range, I can honestly say that the beast’s propaganda machine is just as disingenuous as the British media.

I find it utterly disgusting, for example, that the Irish were twice called to vote on the Nice Treaty – and again on the Lisbon Treaty – until they secured a “Yes” vote. That’s not democracy.

Then look at Greece. It’s economy is in a shambles. Partly because of fiscal mismanagement, but also because it is denied the opportunity to revalue its currency, which could spare it some pain. In a centralised monetary system, of course, the more economically solvent countries – i.e., Germany – should step in to bail it out. But, unsurprisingly, Chancellor Merkel is worried about alienating her voters. Why should hard-working Germans step into support fast-spending Greeks? It’s a very good question.

But the main problem with all of this is that the architects of the euro knew full well that, at some point, the “Greek problem” (could equally have been the Portuguese problem or the Spanish problem, too) was going to happen. But they push ahead with the single currency anyway, simply because this would give much more political credence to the whole system. It is much harder to back out of the EU once your mint has started churning out euro coins.

I was writing about this in 2002, during the introduction of the single currency. But all the negative arguments against the single currency were lost in amongst a hotchpotch of untruths.

I can’t speak for my countrymen, but that is essentially why I am so hostile towards the EU. It is indeed a worthwhile endeavour, if only one could make intellectually honest arguments for its existence, just as eurosceptics should stop spouting all sorts of nonsence about the EU.

And, if you ever meet me in a party and, without knowing me, start talking about British eurosceptism as though I am an authority on the subject, I’ll probably just give you this link and talk about Russian vodka instead.

Finally, Britain can join Europe

May 27, 2009

Try as one might, one can’t but help feeling a certain cackling glee at the number of British MPs that have been felled by recent revelations in The Telegraph about outrageous expenses that have been claimed. With ten years’ writing about politics, I can honestly say that I loathe the profession and it would take a great deal to persuade me ever to become a bona-fida elected MP.

This evening, I went for a walk along the banks of the Po with an Italian friend of mine. “So, what do you think of this MP scandal?” he asked.

I shrugged. I hadn’t really been following it. I’d been in Hungary. Though I had received embarrassing tidbits courtesy of CNN.

I tried to explain in Italian something of the British pysche – that for a country such as the UK, proud as we are of our righteous democracy, these things just don’t really happen. So it’s kind of a shock to the system. Cackle as we may as Andrew MacKay bites the dust, we (as a nation) are starting to realise that it’s not the MPs that are at fault, but the system. Everyone is on the take. A bit like A Clockwork Orange. Absolutely no one is good.

And we’re pretty damn pissed off about this.

Compare this to Italy. Everyone knows Berlusconi is corrupt. Most people suspect he has mafia connections (never proven, please don’t sue). Everyone knows the media is biased. And yet the system survives and no one batters an eyelid.

Feeling particularly patriotic, I tried to lay all this out to my walking companion – explaining that in Britain we have a zero-tolerance to this kind of thing. It’s just about the only thing I like about the country.

My companion thought for a moment before responding, in jocular tones, “well, then, finally you can join Europe.”

The dangers of protectionism

March 17, 2009

One thing that I have gleaned this week, during my visit back to the UK, is how close many of my friends seem to be to redundancy.

Some have already been made redundant, with a seemingly handsome (though possibly deceptive, given how long this recession could last) pay-off in order for them to leave as quickly as possible. Others seem to be clinging on by their very finger-tips. Others are fortunate to be sitting on an internal committee that is discussing restructuring of the firm; which would appear to be a fortuitous position to hold in the current climate.

But no one feels very secure in their job any more, rather suggesting that attempts to spread rumours of an imminent recovery, particularly by overly-optimistic Ben Bernanke (chairman of the US Federal Reserve) and his more pragmatic European counterparts, are having only a limited effect.

At times like this, the spectre of job protectionism is also likely to rear its ugly head. After all, if you are perilously close to entering redundancy – and, given the current gloom, the prospects of immediately walking into another job are probably slim – then it is easy to feel angry with the current system, and wonder why more isn’t being done to safeguard jobs. Just why is it so easy to hire and fire (particularly the latter) people in the UK?

If you look at the situation elsewhere in Europe – especially in Italy and France – the dangers of such protectionism start to become clear. A common viewpoint I often hear is to describe Europe as an elderly and dying man, destined to gracefully fade into obscurity as it is suppassed by the Asian tigers of India and China on the one hand, and a continually-innovating United States on the other hand. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If European countries could just shake-up their employment regulations, allowed firms a certain amount of flexibility to downsize when times are hard, whilst maintaining the necessary social safety net (which America, alas, does not have) to stave off mass poverty – then this might be the life-saving drug that Europe needs.

The arguments in favour of this are clear. If governments could stop protecting dying industries (the car market, whilst not exactly dying, is an obvious example where competition has become too tough for many firms to compete on their own), and start promoting those industries where Europe still has something to offer, then things can be turned around. Pay large sums of money on retraining staff. Not on protecting them in existing jobs.

No one taught me journalism. I became a journalist because I was exasperated with IT. No one taught me finance. I learnt this particular trade because I realised that being just a journalist, at a time when papers are dying an ugly death, is not enough to keep one off the breadline. I would love to live in the 1970s, where journalists mattered so much more than they do now for dissemination of the news, but I don’t live in the 1970s and I quickly realised that in my career. No one taught me about publishing or marketing a guidebook, or about the layout. I learnt all about this, because we had spotted a gap in the market that we thought needed filling.

I’m not meaning to particularly build myself up here. Just to point out what every worker, and therefore governments, should focus on. Never be afraid of change. Never be afraid of constantly learning. Never be afraid of losing your job, because you are no longer needed in the current market.

The problem is that this point of view is easy to say when you don’t have a stable job, and are actually indirectly benefiting from the redundancies – journalists may have to leave, but the pages of a paper still need to be filled, which is where freelancers come in. But, if you have worked for ten years in the same job, then you are understandable going to feel upset if you are about to lose it. The challenge is to make sure these personal sentiments, decrying job current insecurity in Britain, do not feed into government policy. Because, if they do, all those people who have recently lost their job are going to find it much harder to get back into the workforce when the climate suddenly improves.

In my current place of residence – Turin – Fiat workers consider them fortunate, because they have just been bailed out (again) by the Italian government. The contents of this agreement are a little fuzzy, but it basically means that they can return to work without fear of losing their job. Which is probably upsetting for a few of them, because the government had been paying most of them half-pay for remaining at home (or on the golf course) over the past couple of months; this is a particularly Italian arrangement, when a company hits difficulties. During this time, we ran into a large group of them at a fancy pizzaria in Turin, talking loudly and jovially, and consuming large amounts of red wine. They didn’t seem particularly worried that they might be about to lose their job. Perhaps the economy should be worried that they are not going to.