It's time for Western leaders to make a stand against enemies of globalisation

Globalisation has its many detractors but few can argue with any real conviction that the forces behind its progress over the past 20 years are unwelcome
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Globalisation has its many detractors but few can argue with any real conviction that the forces behind its progress over the past 20 years are unwelcome. Globalisation has, of course, been an ongoing trend over many decades: the huge growth of world trade in the Fifties and Sixties was a key part of the world economy's extraordinary expansion back then. In more recent times, though, globalisation has taken on a new guise. Nowadays, it's not so much the free flow of goods and services that dominates the agenda: rather, it's the free flow of capital and of people.

Globalisation has its many detractors but few can argue with any real conviction that the forces behind its progress over the past 20 years are unwelcome. Globalisation has, of course, been an ongoing trend over many decades: the huge growth of world trade in the Fifties and Sixties was a key part of the world economy's extraordinary expansion back then. In more recent times, though, globalisation has taken on a new guise. Nowadays, it's not so much the free flow of goods and services that dominates the agenda: rather, it's the free flow of capital and of people.

There are all sorts of good reasons behind this new-found mobility. The collapse of Communism has led to the economic emancipation of people in many Central and Eastern European countries. There may have been severe adjustment difficulties but few of these countries would choose to go back to the "bad old days": for them, membership of the European Union is a badge of honour, a symbol of progress after so many decades in the economic wilderness. The economic reforms in China have brought more people out of rural poverty in the past 20 years than in any economy ever before. The introduction of new technologies - leading to a collapse in the cost of communications - has brought people and ideas together in ways that could only have been dreamt about 30 or 40 years ago.

These changes have created new economic opportunities. Capital pours into China because Chinese workers are happy to make things at wages lower than would be paid in the West. Eastern Europeans flood into Western Europe because, for them, opportunities abound that don't easily exist at home. Companies increasingly outsource their services to India: many Indians have the right qualifications and, as a result of capital mobility, now have the opportunities as well. All in all, the world should end up a better place: capital is allocated more efficiently, goods and services are produced more cheaply, and consumers and shareholders (not only plutocrats, but future pensioners) benefit.

And people are able to fulfil their dreams. In New York this year, I was talking to a taxi driver who had come to the United States from Romania during the Ceaucescu regime. He was happy not only because he was still working (he was in his early seventies) but because his sons had been given opportunities that might have been denied them in Romania, particularly if Ceaucescu had stayed in power. One was a lawyer, the other worked for the Pentagon. The taxi driver's story, though, is just the tip of the iceberg: the changes of recent years have brought genuine economic opportunity to millions of people who, otherwise, would have been without any real hope.

Yet, despite the benefits of globalisation, the backlash against it has intensified. Non-governmental organisations may have paved the way - in some cases, notably the fair trade and environmental lobbies, for entirely understandable reasons - but opposition has, more recently, taken a more sinister form. Whereas many NGOs care mainly about those people who live in genuine poverty in disadvantaged parts of the world, the latest form of opposition comes, instead, from those people in the rich and corpulent West who feel vulnerable: while globalisation may provide opportunities for many millions of Indians and Chinese, there are plenty of people in the West who look upon these developments with fear and resentment.

Examples abound. In the US, the protectionist lobby in Congress goes from strength to strength, demanding protection for US workers against those elsewhere in the world who are prepared to work for lower wages. In the UK, the Conservative election campaign dwelt on people's perceived anxieties about immigration (Labour, by failing to offer a staunch rebuttal to Conservative claims, was almost as bad: surely Mr Blair and his friends could have stressed more forcefully how immigration has provided additional resources for many public services, including the National Health Service?). And, in Italy, I had to endure the views of another taxi driver - an Italian - who hurled racist abuse at a North African construction worker whose "crime" was merely to direct traffic while a lorry unloaded next to a building site.

A particularly disturbing aspect of these fears is the strange meeting of minds between those on the far Left and those on the far Right. Although the French referendum on the EU, to be held on 29 May, will end up reflecting all sorts of opinions - concerns about domestic issues as much as worries about EU expansion - at least some of the views contained within the "non" camp will be in opposition to immigration and to "Anglo-Saxon capitalism" - increasingly a euphemism for globalisation.

For me, this is no more than the political equivalent of sticking your head in the sand. Globalisation is a force that is not going to go away. Far better, then, to tackle globalisation in an enlightened fashion than simply to sit still, Canute-like, and hope that the tide will turn, all the while stoking up hatred and resentment.

Perhaps the most worrying example of this myopic set of fears comes from Germany, the country that prides itself on its social market principles but, also, the country that is discovering that those principles are becoming more and more difficult to sustain against a backdrop of sweeping globalisation. Germany has all sorts of economic problems, ranging from a post-reunification hangover to an excessively regulated retail sector, from high non-wage labour costs to unpalatable levels of unemployment. Germany's difficulties have been compounded, though, by a lack of appetite for - and lack of consensus on - the reforms needed to guarantee its future economic well-being.

Instead, Germany is having a debate about insects. More precisely, before Sunday's election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the SPD party's head , Franz Müntefering, has claimed that some financial firms are a direct threat to "our democracy", describing them as "swarms of locusts that fall on companies, stripping them bare before moving on". The fact that many foreign private equity companies - precisely the companies that Mr Müntefering thinks are full of arthropods - have kept German companies afloat when, left to their own devices, they would surely have faced extinction seems to have been conveniently ignored.

This is controversial stuff. But even worse is IG Metall's contribution to the debate. "Bloodsuckers", an article that appears on the website of the German metal workers union ( www.igmetall.de/metall/mai05/titel.pdf) is an attack on American capitalists and their apparent desire to suck the lifeblood out of the German economy.

The article contains illustrations that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Germany of the Thirties: American businessmen, drawn as mosquitoes, with Uncle Sam hats and each with a very large proboscis (which, according to the dictionary, can be either "the long mouthparts of certain insects" or "a human nose, especially a large one".) Perhaps IG Metall never intended this imagery to be anti-Semitic but, quite frankly, its leaders should have known better.

There's no doubt that people do feel a sense of unease about globalisation. There's no doubt that globalisation - as with any competitive process - has a random element to it: there will be many winners but, also, there will be losers along the way. But for people in power to whip up fear of the foreigner, fear of the ethnic minority, fear of the Jew, is nothing short of a disgrace.

It's time for leaders in the Western world to stand up to this kind of abuse and emphasise the ultimate benefits of economic integration becaus e, otherwise, we're going to end up in an increasingly intolerant and racially divided society, with our leaders pandering to the very worst of human instincts.

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