(This was written four years ago)

David Cameron has recently announced his intention, if re-elected, to hold a referendum on UK membership of the European Union.  This post isn’t me selling a line one way or the other, but a way of clearing my own head that I hope others might find helpful.  I was tempted to start this post by saying “I would count myself a European, but …”, except that this sounds very much like “I’m no racist, but …”.   It’s a difficult topic.  Liz and I have a house in France, where we live for some of the year.  We enjoy Italy, Germany and Spain, have had a great time in Denmark, and are shortly off to visit friends who spend much of their year in Andalucía.  It would be easy to take an uncritically pro-EU line on the basis of the sad and unpleasant people who are lined up against continued membership, including the appalling UKIP.  But I’d like time and help to chew the whole thing over.

There are a number of issues that this proposal raises, most of which have been poorly covered in public discussion.  Some of the stuff is simply inaccurate – like a letter in the last Sunday Times ranting about the European Court of Human Rights, which is nothing to do with the EU.  What is our net budgetary contribution ?  What are the gains from trade ?  Where do these estimates of the vast cost of EU regulation come from, and how are they calculated ?  Which EU regulations would have to be replaced by national ones if we withdrew ?  Whilst there are some good resources – like the Financial Times – often the best you can hope for is summaries of what politicians are saying.  And what they say is a curious combination of vacuous and threatening.  Look at this article by Joschka Fischer, for example, and see if you’re any the wiser.  This may be because, as I said in an earlier blog, I think I am the only person in the country who does not want to extend Britain’s influence in the world. What does ‘punching above our weight’ mean, anyway ?  Asking people to do what we say even though we have a weak economy and undersized military ? Why would they do that ?

The first question is why we submit things to a referendum, rather than leaving it to elected representatives.  The answer that is usually given is that the British people must give consent to changes in our constitution, for it is from them that legitimacy flows.  This explains why we don’t have referenda on hanging or immigration or whatever else, but we do have them on regional government or voting systems.  Doesn’t explain why we had a referendum on police commissioners, but let that pass.   We have already had a referendum on EEC membership, in 1975, and the vote was two-thirds to stay in.  The reason given for another referendum on Europe is that things have changed, that what was sold as a trading bloc has become an ‘ever closer union’ covering a wide range of social and political issues.  Well, actually the phrase ‘ever closer union’ was in the Treaty of Rome in 1956.  There were proposals at the time for a unified currency – I remember writing an article pointing this out at the time, and attacking it.  I actually took part in the “No” campaign, writing articles in journals and sharing a stage as the warm-up act for Michael Meacher MP.  Curiously for the current viewer, the objection then was that the EEC was a capitalist club in which no respectable socialist could find a place.  Ho hum; times change, don’t they.

The second problem requires some thought about what is meant by a single market.  The government’s line is that we are happy to be part of a trading bloc with a single internal market, free of tariffs and quotas.  What we don’t want, we are told, is the raft of regulations and political initiatives that are now being forced on us.  This sounds awfully plausible, but it really isn’t.  Firstly, if you want to be part of a trading bloc, you have to agree a common basis of trade.  You cannot expect firms in France or Germany to be willing to open their markets to competitors with laxer health or personnel rules.  Common regulations actually help competition in an open market: you wouldn’t expect one butcher at Sheffield market to have different hygiene standards to another, would you ?  If we do not have (e.g.) common rules on electrical safety of household devices, we open up the opportunity for home nations to refuse to accept our exports on health and safety grounds.  Think how long it took for the French to accept British beef (on grounds of public safety, of course) after the mad cow disease outbreak.  I was talking to a chemical engineer recently who welcomed EU regulation of the Italian chemical industry, making them follow the same formulations and safety checks as the rest of Europe.

In passing, economic theory does indeed suggest that welfare would be improved by having free trade internationally. The basic theory goes back to David Ricardo in the 19th century, but is subject to a number of reservations. You could, in any case, argue that the EU does not help freer international trade because it interferes with trade with non-members, for example in agriculture. In any case, the actual size of the ‘gains from trade’ may not be enormous – for nerds, here’s a lecture by Paul Krugman to that effect.

A free market also involves free movement of labour.  It’s interesting that the lack of immigration control, which I guess are at the heart of much public objection to the current EU policies, is not part of the government’s ‘bottom lines’ for renegotiation.  When will this news be broken to Essex man ?

Tories say they like the idea of free markets, but two areas where free markets do not work are agriculture and fisheries.  European agricultural policy has involved consistent intervention in the market to assure the stability of farming communities, and as part of this there are extensive transfers of money from countries with small agricultural sectors to those that have larger ones (and from people who aren’t farmers to those that are).  A cynic could say that the EEC started as a deal where France gave Germany access to its industrial markets in exchange for support for French farmers.  Fisheries suffer from the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and it’s not really being fixed, mostly due to the fact that the fishing industry has more votes than herrings.  The economist in me says that a better definition of property rights – who owns this particular part of the Dogger Bank etc – would go a long way to solving this problem.  However, although considerable benefits could arise from reforming  both of these policy areas, the assumption that an independent UK policy will sort out the farming and fishing industry lobby is optimistic indeed.

So why are we here, apart from Mr Cameron’s desire to placate his anti-European wing and stop votes slipping away to UKIP ?  Well, there is a reasonable  argument that says that the euro currency bloc will, after all its travails, have to get closer in financial and budgetary matters, and that this creates a two-track Europe where relationships need to be clarified.  Not sure why this needs an in-out referendum, for it will be an exercise that involves other countries inn the outer ring, and that will be an enduring piece of work rather than a one-off task.

There is another major problem with an in-out referendum, which is this.  Taking any serious decision in life involves assessing the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives.  That’s how businesses work, and it is how families work: hell, it’s how Darwin decided whether or not to get married.  I can accept that it will be possible to lay out clearly the advantages and costs of staying a member of the EU, though I’d like a clearer accounting of the advantages of a single market rather than vacuous allegations or denials of how many jobs depend on it.  However, the costs and benefits of being out are altogether foggier.  If the electorate decides to vote “No”, there will then need to be a series of negotiations to see what the deal is when we withdraw.  We cannot know beforehand what this will lead to.  There is no reason why the French and Germans should broker a generous deal, is there – apart from the fact that the UK has a large negative trade balance with them ?  What, anyway, would a generous – or niggardly – deal look like ?   In other words, we are asked to choose between two alternatives without knowing the costs and benefits of one of them.

And finally – is it all just a matter of regulation and finance, or is the idea of a European Union more noble and broader than that.  Isn’t it a good idea that, in return for freer trade, richer countries contribute to bringing poorer ones up to speed with decent infrastructure ?  Isn’t in inevitable that looking after the environment means going beyond national boundaries ?  Don’t new countries benefit from a shared understanding of democracy and civil liberties ?  Don’t the EU institutions we never hear of, the ones that sponsor artistic and educational exchanges, contribute to a richer understanding ?  Shouldn’t we welcome the way that young people can travel abroad and try different jobs in different cultures without too much fuss ?  How much weight should we place on sixty years of European peace, and to what extent can we attribute it to European institutions (rather than NATO or sheer common sense) ?

There’s a very good introduction to this area of debate on Alistair Campbell’s blog site called, Monty Python style, “What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us ?” – but other contributions would be very welcome. Mind you, I guess one argument against the referendum is that a “Yes” vote will not placate the antis, who will push for another referendum in five or ten years, or whenever the next treaty comes up to be ratified. The Canadians, tired of Quebec’s endless debate about whether to be an independent Francophone country, have a word for this – Neverendum.

The economy – Jan 2013

Just a few bits about the economy from today’s news.

  • In today’s Times, the chief economist of HSBC points out that productivity in manufacturing industry fell by 5% in the third quarter of 2012. There are explanations for this (it is much easier to reduce unit costs when output is rising than when it is stagnant or falling) but one wonders what the right wing press would have said if the public sector had experienced such a fall in efficiency.  Privatise ‘em all, I guess.
  • The UK economy is not increasing in wealth at all – in fact we are poorer now than we were in 2008. Output fell in the last quarter, and real household incomes are falling.  Everyone knows this, but do they know that this outcome is predicted by economic theory, and just about every respectable economist.
  • The IMF says that the government’s austerity policies are not working, and suggests some easing. The Deputy Prime Minister now feels that cutting capital spending was damaging.  Even Boris Johnson, the Tory Mayor of London, thinks the presentation of austerity has been overblown.
  • The main argument being given for the perverse policy of reducing public spending just when private spending was falling is that it keeps interest rates low by retaining the confidence of international lenders. But the interest rate on the bonds of the French government, who are disapproved of by these same international gnomes, is falling.  There is a heap of savings about, and nowhere to put it.
  • Eurozone countries with major unemployment problems were encouraged in the recent past to leave the Euro, re-adopt their own currencies, and increase exports on the basis of devaluation (even by me). But devaluation means lowering the value of your own currency in relation to other currencies.  By definition, not everyone can do it.  If I devalue, you can’t.  This is now being stated at the Davos

So not only does the evidence show the government is wrong, even its friends are saying it is wrong.  In fact, even its members are saying it got it wrong.

A question of Europe

I’m a great addict of tv quiz shows. My early evening goes from Pointless to Eggheads, and on Monday we can then proceed smoothly to University Challenge and Only Connect. I’ve got a dongle that allows me to watch from France, where we are spending a holiday at the moment. Which means I can watch them alongside the French quiz-shows, my favourite being Questions Pour Un Champion.

One thing that has struck me is how few questions there are about Europe in UK quizzes, and it is particularly striking in relation to the wealth of questions about the USA. Contestants are expected to know more about the American Civil War than the Franco-Prussian War, more about the US constitution than the Edict of Nantes. An example: it seems that the average pub-quizzer needs to know the capitals of all the US states, but is never asked about the capitals of European regions. Which, if the recent celebrity version of University Challenge is any evidence, probably avoids a lot of embarrassment. A panel of four high achievers were asked to name a German region beginning with ‘Sw’, a question that should be about as difficult as asking which English county begins with Yo. Embarrassed silence ensued. This fits with a recent column by Matthew Parris in the Times, which asked readers to name the Irish Prime Minister: if that’s too tough, who is your own MEP ? I live in France for two or three months of the year and would be pushed to name the French Prime Minister (Jean-Marc Ayrault, by the way, if you’re off to the quiz at the Dog and Duck tonight). By contrast, the French quiz contestant is regularly asked questions about British cinema, geography or literature.

Is this a sign of Euroscepticism ? A general feeling that foreigners aren’t that significant ? Our traditional weakness with languages ? Or maybe, the continuing fascination with all things American. One person wounded in a California school is more newsworthy than three Kurdish activists shot dead in Paris, to take this week’s example. I’m not immune. I love to visit the USA and am as open to its seductions as the next Brit. But I do remember when travelling round the USA as a 21 year old student, going to St Louis, and being disappointed that (despite the classic jazz songs) it was like Coventry only hot. Maybe we should find out as much about our close neighbours as our distant cousins.


Family on the net

Like many other people, I’ve dabbled with a little family research on the Internet. What I find remarkable is the wealth of records, and their accuracy, over the years and centuries. I’ve found my great great grandfather at his mill in Cornwall, revealed by the 1871 census. His relatives emigrated to the USA, and I have found their records – including the ship they travelled on to New York, the records showing which port it started out from, and the other passengers (mostly peasants from northern German) – without charge on the Ellis Island website. The work of all the minor administrators, government officials, pursers is accurate, neat and immensely revealing.

Let me give as examples two recent discoveries about my family. The first came as a complete surprise. My mother was called Catherine Grace, but she also had an additional and rare middle name, which she loathed and used only on legal forms. But it was this name that enabled me to hunt down her birth certificate. I was at first confused because there were two births notified by my grandparents, one in 1910 and one in 1911, both called Catherine Grace. It seems that my grandmother had a little girl who died in infancy, and she named her second (and final) child – my mother – who was born the following year and survived, after her. None of my brothers and sisters knew this – indeed, we wonder whether Mum did, because she never spoke of it, even to my elder sisters. Those were the days, I guess, when griefs were private and not shared.

Military records are exceptionally good. My second piece of research concerned Uncle Sonny, the brother of my father’s mother. He emigrated to Canada before the Great War, but enlisted in the Canadian Army and fought through all its campaigns in France. He was killed in July 1918, and the family story was that he was died because he left shelter to calm the horses in his detachment, who were distressed by enemy artillery fire. I remember visiting his grave with my parents and my Gran years ago, and noticing that 14 men from the same unit were killed on the same day, which rather discredited the horse-calming theory. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a very efficient organisation, but in the pre-web days we had to visit their office in Ypres to find out precisely where he was buried. You can do it all on the Internet now (click here to check), and the web even makes detailed regimental records available, and these include the daily diaries of activity for each battalion – including Uncle Sonny’s. I looked for the day he had died, and there appeared to be no record. But a German aircraft had flown over in the night, and dropped a bomb on their sleeping quarters, so the record was in the following day’s entry. To die a few months before the war’s end is very sad, but if you are going to be killed on the Western Front, I guess a bomb whilst sleeping is not the worst way to go.

One last internet link is this, less personal but interesting nevertheless: My Dad was in the RAF during the Second World War – nothing heroic, as I’ve said before, basically an administrator for a Coastal Command airbase*. There’s even a picture of him singing in the squadron bar, pint in hand.  But he did do some flying, often on communication errands between bases, and one plane my Dad flew in has been turned into a die-cast model and is available on t’internet. Not just the type of plane, the actual individual example. I think, by the way, it’s a German company that makes it.

* not that this would prevent him being called a hero by today’s tabloids.