Margareta Pagano: Obama's 'snub' shows Britain is now Continental
One thing is clear – Europe needs to hear the UK
Sunday 27 September 2009
All the guff about Barack Obama snubbing Gordon Brown at last week's UN meetings was hot air. If you read the political hacks, this is supposed to be the fifth time that the President has refused Brown a tête-à-tête, and is being presented by some as diplomatic revenge over Libya.
I'm no fan of Brown, but the US President is far too smart an operator to do anything so silly as to shun our Prime Minister, or any leader, whether he likes them or not. Politicians of Obama's ambition don't do personal relations, only political relations.
That's why Obama's decision not to have a big one-to-one with Brown, or any of the other European leaders, owes more to realpolitik. More telling, perhaps, was that Obama did find time for meetings with the leaders of China, Russia and Japan. With his pleas to the world to reject "reflexive anti-Americanism" it's clear he is concentrating his efforts on persuading the international community that he wants a new era of diplomacy. His speech in Cairo in the spring made that abundantly clear.
Within this context, Obama now sees the UK as just another part of Europe. And other European leaders, such as Germany's Angela Merkel – who is set to win this weekend's elections – are, frankly, more critical to the US than Brown. Obama is not tearing up our "special relationship" but rather extending it to the Continent, and more pertinently, to Nato.
We should take a lead from Obama as Britain's relations with Europe are getting more interesting by the day. Take the EU's latest proposals for sweeping reform of financial regulation, which prompted some to suggest it is out to close down the City. At first glance, you can see why plans for two pan-European regulators might be taken by eurosceptics as another case of loony Brussels bureaucrats out to sink London's financial-services hegemony. But it's an over-reaction to see the plans in this light. Many of the fears that these new bodies might weaken the powers of national regulators have been dealt with. The Commission has made it plain that the new authorities will not be allowed to take powers from countries, nor will it allow them to dictate the use of taxpayers' money. National regulators will still be kings and countries can appeal to the EU if they think safeguards have been breached.
Most of these proposals have been in the pipeline for more than a decade, and have been debated, so they are not a mad-dog reaction to the latest crash. If anything, the crash showed us how badly Europe needs common ground when dealing with cross-border firms, such as the Belgian bank Fortis. But the proposals still need rigorous debate and the UK must have a more powerful voice. Even Ireland's Charlie McCreevy, the EU commissioner for the Internal Market, acknowledges as much.
As always, the power of any new authority depends on the personality who wields it. Speculation that Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, could be the deputy of the new European Systemic Risk Board, suggests that the EU knows it needs to keep Britain sweet. It's time the UK took Europe as seriously; time for Lord Turner to start lobbying to be head of the new European System of Financial Supervisors perhaps?
Old girls' network Women aim for the boardroom
At last, serious action is being taken to help women to step up into the boardroom. What's so refreshing about the latest push from Women for Boards is that it's been nurtured by some serious women. Helen Alexander, the president of the CBI business lobby group as well as non-executive director of Rolls-Royce and Centrica, Anna Ford, former newscaster and non-executive director of Sainsbury's, and DeAnne Julius, chairman of Chatham House and a BP non-executive, are just three of the top women who are offering to mentor female would-be non-executives to help them to get the experience they need to apply for jobs in the boardroom. MWM Consulting and BP are behind the new scheme which is open to women who feel they have the skills to be non-executives on the boards of FTSE 250 and FTSE 35O but are not well enough connected to get there themselves. They have far to go: less than 7 per cent of non-executives across all British quoted companies are women; in the FTSE 100, there only 15 per cent. As Alexander has said: "Why would you fish in only half the pool?"
Like Madame Bovary, romantic bankers turn to a fresh Tory suitor
It seems decades ago now, but think back if you can to the Labour Party's first TV election campaign in April 1997. For the first time ever, Labour was able to crow that it was the party of business, and the TV ad featured fancy endorsements from businessmen such as Gerry Robinson, then Granada's chairman, serial restaurateur Sir Terence Conran and the late Dame Anita Roddick of the Body Shop. This was New Labour at its prime: a party that could be trusted to run the country because it had support of leading businessmen and women.
Tony Blair's spinning of Cool Britannia was so brilliant that it damaged the Tories for at least a decade. Now watch as the tables turn. As we report on page 75, after a hesitant courtship, business and the City are back falling over themselves to be in with the Tories as they prepare for government. It's still not yet in the style of a great Flaubertian love affair but it's warming up nicely; more Dan Brown perhaps. Big business is the most enthusiastic paramour, while in the City there is still a certain cynicism as many bankers are cautious about the real intentions of the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, because he has been publicly nasty about their bonuses. Secretly they believe that Osborne is using bonuses as a stick to hit the Government rather than any real threat.
Others are worried about his threat to break up the banks with his promise to order a competition review of the banking industry. The shadow treasury team is also still looking at whether some sort of Glass-Steagall type separation of investment and retail banking should be introduced – a move that would be fiercely resisted by some of our biggest banks. Osborne has to some extent protected himself, saying that this would only be done with international co-operation. But it's still a possibility and bankers shouldn't be quite so smug.
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