Posts Tagged ‘david cameron’

Oh hear us

June 23, 2016

There is something rotten in Europe. As Brits go to the polls today, it is worth bearing that in mind.

With Remain having taken the lead (by between 2 and 8 percentage points, depending on which poll you look at), and an estimated 10% still in the undecided camp, it looks exceeding unlikely that Brits are now going to vote to leave the EU. Most of those who have not yet made up their mind will probably be swayed by the status-quo.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is such a vociferously strong anti-EU voice in Europe. We’ve always had this, ever since we signed up to the single market. It’s in our ethnic make-up. Like Belgians have their strikes. Or Germans have their sauerkraut.

But it is so surprising that Leave came so close to pulling us out of the EU with such a lousy campaign. This isn’t a crazy lunatic movement that doesn’t like the black fella, as some in the Remain camp constantly insinuate. This is a disparate movement of people that have some very real grievances with how the EU is run.

I think that few who have written about the EU would think that everything is hunkydory in the glitzy corridors of Brussels bureaucracy. Over the past months, I have spoken to many people with first-hand experience of the Brussels apparatus who think it is an utter shambles.

So which way are they voting?

In, of course – because they just can’t think of a good enough reason for voting the other way. Because one hasn’t been presented to them.

But, faced with such moderate thinking and a rather shambolic campaign, it says a lot that Leave seem to have come so close.

So if, as I strongly suspect, we vote to remain within the EU, some really tough action is required in Brussels to convince the British that what they voted for was the right thing. And we are not talking about another hastily put-together David Cameron whistle-stop tour of the European capitals. We need real change.

And that real change needs to start with a scaling back of Brussels intervention, a better reliance on the free market economy and an acknowledgement that there are certain powers Brussels does not have to sink its claws in for the single market to work.

And perhaps above all the EU needs to start engaging better with its citizens. Not this half-hearted campaign of misinformation and propaganda, but a real engagement to explain exactly what the EU is. Because what has emerged during this campaign – talking to people about it, reading comments on my Facebook feed and Twitter, tuning into the occasional debates – is that people still don’t seem to get the EU.

And for this to take hold, the EU needs to drop its veil of arrogance and deceit. The EU did not end wars in Europe. The EU is not irreplaceable. And the EU is most certainly not infallible.

Of course, I don’t think any of these changes are actually going to take hold – and indeed we may find ourselves in a situation where the political elite want to bind European nations into an even more tightly-knit bloc, so those pesky Brits can’t hold an entire continent to ransom again.

But if the EU don’t listen to what the British are trying to say – and I mean really listen – then this problem is never going to go away.

Let them come

November 29, 2013

David Cameron seems to be veering towards dangerous populism that kills any possibility of having a rational debate about the European Union. Suggesting that we are becoming the “nasty country” of Europe, as EU employment commissioner Laszlo Andor did, might be a little harsh; but perhaps the “intellectually disingenuous” country might be closer to the mark.

From the beginning of next year, a wave of Bulgarians and Romanians are certain to wash up on British shores. Someone should probably tell them about the weather in Britain in January. But, that aside, there’s not a whole lot we can do to stop them arriving. And nor should we.

Cameron’s jibe at Tony Blair that he should never have let East Europeans into the country so soon after enlargement – EU countries could have imposed a seven-year transition period for such nationals; only Sweden, Ireland and Britain waived this right – is a cheap populist argument that follows a discredited school of economics. It presupposes that jobs are finite, which they are not.

Take a look at the following graph. Here you can clearly see the British economy outperforming the French one right up until 2008, when of course we paid the price for our deregulated financial market.

Image

Now I wouldn’t be so presumptious as to claim this was entirely due to wondering Poles, but they certainly helped.

Now, Cameron isn’t, as noted, suggesting that Bulgarians and Romanians can’t come. What he is doing is imposing measures to make sure they don’t rip off the British taxpayer.

Fair enough.

But there is also an inherent danger in what he is doing. By appealing to a slightly disagreeable anti-immigrant sentiment that currently courses through the echelons of British society, Cameron, who was schooled at Eton and studied economics at Oxford, risks an over-simplification of the discussion.

Immigration is not bad. It is what has kept our economy afloat for the past decade. It is what made America.

What is bad – and here I will agree with our PM – is those East Europeans that come to the UK simply to get free housing.

But I for one would like to know how many of these Romanians and Bulgarians are planning on coming to the UK simply so they can be out of work in greater comfort than back home. Surely they must know it is cold there.

Cameron needs to move away from straight-forward populism, and be a little more thorough in his treatment of the argument.

A carefully thought-out, mature and sensible immigration policy is what we need.

Some statistics wouldn’t go amiss, either.

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.