The Channel – a generation gap.

So Cameron has caved in to the Eurosceptics, and they all want us to move away from the rest of the EU.

In my travels around the world, and business/academic dealings with the Americans or Chinese / Japanese, I’m reminded of just how culturally different we Europeans are to them. I’m proud of our cultural achievements, of ESA, CERN and Airbus, and our messy multiparty democracies – more unwieldy but more representative than the grotesquely polarised US system. Speaking only from experience my academic work has benefited from EU structures and funding, and neither of my businesses has ever been ‘hampered by Brussels bureaucrats’ as far as I can tell (but maybe I am a blinkered irrational Europhile.) I do know that I am British, English and European. At the same time.

I see the EU as a collaborative project, not a zero-sum game, and in the long run we only stand to lose out if we are not represented well at the EU. I accept that Cameron’s options on Thursday were limited, but I feel that that restricted position owed more to mistakes made months ago, inadequate diplomatic investment over time (cocking a snook at Sarkozy repeatedly and Merkel earlier this year) and his decision to leave the centre-right European Peoples’ Party grouping (including Merkel and Sarkozy) for a fringe ultra-right one including parties with neo-Nazi links. He became a hostage to events and lost influence with our colleagues in other EU member states. From the accounts I’ve read, Cameron (who has only been in the job 18 months or so) essentially miscalculated and botched the summit in a fairly amateurish way, preferring to play to the far-right eurosceptics at home instead. I can’t imagine a Churchill, a Gladstone, a Pitt or, yes, even a Thatcher would have manoeuvered so poorly.

I don’t see how the City will actually prosper if the eurozone moves ahead with harmonisation – it seems far more likely that Frankfurt will benefit more as the geographical and social centre of a revitalised Euro. After all, if you were a Far Eastern investor would you rather be in London, with (some) lower taxes and regulation (potentially) but restricted access to the main European market, or Frankfurt? Long-term the answer seems obvious to me. The comparison with Switzerland seems dodgy at best: they have a deposit-based banking sector driving a $500bn economy of 7m people, versus our financial-services sector contributing 10-20% of a $2,200bn economy of 62m people.

And what of national soverignty? Of Trafalgar, Nelson, England’s wooden walls; the Battle of Britain; the Blitz spirit – the lone bulldog standing resolute against the storms of the world? I’m not sure if that imagery is helpful or even relevant any more. After all, launching a cruise missile, refuelling a fighter jet, or even firing a rifle requires the logistical support of dozens of private companies, many of whom are not British and any number of which might be bought or sold by persons or governments unknown. And if defence really is your thing, remember we are still the leading European player in NATO; that the US is increasingly turning towards the pacific and will not guarantee our security much longer; and that further European defence co-operation (which seems the only real route to strategic security) has been blocked by us, not facilitated. Of course the 27 member states all have different priorities (French agriculture, Italian design and luxury goods, German / Polish manufacturing, etc) but we can’t all have our special interests entirely protected. The point of the european project is to trade some national decision-making for european solidarity. To be clear – I am in favour of that.

Lastly – we know economic fortunes are always changing. To attempt, essentially, to enshrine our financial sector’s position in international treaty frameworks at the expense of our other interest may well be illogical as well as unpopular. Suppose, in 40 years, our comparative advantage lies in manufacturing again, or even tourism or some other industry? Would we then have sought to re-write the rules again? To me it seems far more sensible for the long-term so set rules that are equal and fair to all, and let the best man (which, currently, is us as far as financial services are concerned) win.

But then the older generations know best, so perhaps we should let them drag us out of the EU. After all, all our generation and our children have to do is live with the consequences.

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  • Actually – there’s also a really good French perspective on this here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/08/euro-sentimentalist-lament-eu