Margareta Pagano: Our votes are the only way to make Europe work for us
Politicians need to catch up with cross-border firms
Sunday 17 May 2009
The outcome of the forthcoming European elections is more important than ever for the UK's business community. Sadly, the signs are that the voting turnout for the June vote is going to be lower than ever – about 31 per cent according to a recent poll – while the shenanigans going on in our own Parliament may put people off voting even more. But, by far the best protest would be for as many people to vote as possible, thus demonstrating their interest in what's happening on the Continent.
Working efficiently with Europe is critical to the UK. The Continent is in deep recession but it's still our biggest trading partner by far with more than £400bn of trade between us. This represents more than half of the UK's total trade in goods and services. To put this into context, China and India represent only 4.2 per cent and 1.3 per cent of our external trade.
With central and eastern European countries making up "new" Europe, an enormous market of 500 million people – bigger than America and half as big as India – is right on our doorstep and ready for development. It's a market with a higher gross national income than any other in the world. It's also ripe for UK business because so much of our expertise is in services, such as financial and professional, which countries emerging from behind the iron curtain need to reform. As an example, Tesco has 650 stores across "new" Europe, employing 70,000 people and serving 10 million customers.
Regulation is also critical, which is why it's is so important that the UK be represented by top MEPs – who have the support of their constituencies. So what does business want the EU to change the most? Business in Europe, a think-tank which advocates reform, argues that the most vital step is to knock down the barriers to small businesses and entrepreneurs – stopping state-aid for the old lumbering giants. That's why we need our MEPS to fight the more centrist inclinations of Brussels, which seems intent on stifling enterprise. While the new services directive will free the market, it still needs enforcing. Opening the labour market to the new member states should also be fast-tracked – so far, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden have opened their doors.
But to my mind, the single, most-radical ambition would be for the EU to support much greater co-operation between companies across borders, particularly for sharing innovations. Governments, and certainly not supranational ones, never make good business decisions. However, they can be facilitators. With the costs of research and development now so high, there should be a much greater push for firms to share their new technologies in sectors such as bio-tech and energy and to work on more projects such as Airbus. There must be ways for the EU to help speed up the cross-continent rail network which SNCF and Deutsche Bahn are working on.
What's really fascinating about Europe is how politicians are behind the curve. Both Labour and Tory parties have a blind-spot over Europe which only time will resolve. Meanwhile, the new breed of "cross-border Brits", are the ones turning the bureaucrats' dream into a reality. By getting out to the ballot box, it might show the politicians that we want them to catch up.
Bold, audacious – our modern visionaries can change the world
The plan by the two Cambridge entrepreneurs to raise £4bn to build a new high-speed rail link is breathtaking in its ambition, and bold in its imagination. It's also a fantastic project, one that breaks the orthodoxy that only the state can deliver big infrastructure.
Neither George Freeman – who runs the 4d Biomedical consultancy – nor Nigel Brown – a leading figure in the Cambridge angel scene who has already created one bank and is working on another – lack guts. They've been in venture capital all their adult lives, so they understand risk, and financing. Brown has been frustrated by the region's poor rail network for years, but it was only when Freeman, now the Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for Mid Norfolk, got out on the road to meet his would-be constituents that he appreciated how awful the road and rail network is in East Anglia. Getting from Cambridge to Norwich is a nightmare, while trying to travel to the once prosperous seaside towns of Cromer, Great Yarmouth – which once boasted three railway stations – and Lowestoft is almost impossible. Don't even think about going west to Oxford or south to the big ports at Harwich and Felixstowe. Put that together with government plans to push 85,000 new homes into the region – without improving the transport, and you'll understand why he was so angered.
It will be a big job to bring together the partners necessary to get their scheme off the ground and it will need proper Government backing, and a bit of long-term strategic thinking which the French are so good at. With government bonds where they are, I can't imagine there will be too many problem in raising money from investors.
Freeman and Brown call themselves the new Victorians – I prefer to see them as I hope the future will, as 21st-century Elizabethans. It's about time we had our own visionaries.
Not so naive Lord Myners fails to help politicians' cause
I'm so glad that the Treasury Select Committee agreed with my views on Lord Myners, the City minister, that his handling of Sir Fred Goodwin's £16.9m pension pot was incompetent. The select committee also called Lord Myners's decision to give Sir Fred's pension the go-ahead naive.
This is where I differ from them – naivety is simply not a good enough defence. Lord Myners has operated at the sharp end of business – chairman of M & S and of the Guardian Media Group – and to say he was only naive will, I'm afraid, only serve to bolster the public's view that politicians are once again protecting their own. To my mind, the most damning part of the Sir Fred episode was the way the Government leaked the news to take the sting out what they had allowed to happen. That is unforgivable but typical of this Government. Even Sir Fred did not deserve such treatment.
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