Monday, 17 October 2011

Britain vs Europe - Which System is Better?

Ah, the European Union. From British shores, it is that big conglomerate thing with a funny blue flag that takes hard earning tax payers cash and doles it out to lazy continental scum to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes all day. I kid you not, that would be as accurate a description of the EU from a relatively sober member of the British public.

(European Parliament in Strasbourg - most Brits would spit at the institution, if we could be bothered to)

My view? Well, I will get to that in a minute.

For better or for worse, Britain is a part of the EU. But we are not a part of some of its major systems. Britain famously has kept Sterling and almost as significantly, we are not a part of the Schengen system of borderless travel. Now for me, I have never really cared either way, as my travels in the rest of Europe have been relatively minimal over the past decade. But recently and currently, I am heading off to Europe a hell of a lot. I have already gone four times this year to Europe and will be heading there another two times before 2012 swings in. That is an incredible change in my own travel patterns and has made m think and question Britain's take toward the EU, how it compares and the good and the bad between the two. For whatever Britain's membership of the EU, in effect the relationship between the two is similar to Hong Kong's relationship with China - One Country, Two Systems.

Let us tackle the question of the Euro. At the moment, with the debt crisis engulfing the Eurozone, it is very unfashionable to talk about Britain exchanging Sterling for the Euro. But it is my belief that eventually, Britain will adopt the Euro in some way or another. It maybe another generation to go, but at some point, Britain will relinquish total control over its currency and join the Euro. Why? Money talks, and in the end, that is the only reason why Britain today is a part of the EU - cash. The bulk of our trade is with Europe and that counts for everything, The EU, despite its cumbersome nature has allowed British firms to take advantage of the huge internal market that exists. It is the fundamental reason for Britain being tied to Europe, and it will reach its logical conclusion with the adoption of the Euro. But that will take time.

Do I think the Euro is a good thing? In practice, yes, I do. From the viewpoint of a simple traveller, it is a pain to handle different currencies over such a small geographical area. It would also make comparing the cost of goods and services a lot easier. It would remove the commission costs and fudged exchange rates that I have to pay every time I go abroad, which this year could rack up to around £30 - not an insignificant amount. I would love to see Britain join the Euro for these practical reasons. I have no notions of our currency or a loss of sovereignty. As currency is no longer linked to gold, they are in the end, just pieces of paper for governments to manipulate.

And it was a real pain on my road trip this year, passing through four countries and having to deal with four different currencies. If they all had the Euro, my life would have been a doddle!

At the moment however, the monetary governance of the EU is pathetic. Some countries were let into the Eurozone on political rather than economic grounds. To be honest, the political posturing of the EU has to be replaced by cold hard economic sense before the currency could be seen as fit to join.

And then the other big visible part of Europe. Schengen. Here is an example of what borderless travel actually looks like:

(Right foot in Slovakia, Left foot in Hungary)

And Schengen is easy! International boundaries have become no more than lines in the tarmac. The only way you know you have changed countries is a sign saying Poland Welcomes Careful Drivers, and a bleep on your mobile phone when the network changes. It is a joy to whistle past boundaries that once upon a time were the result of deep political and ideological differences. Nowadays they are marker points of linguistic flurries. Joy!

But should the UK join Schengen.

I am in two minds about this. While the Euro, I think is a good thing and with reform could become a source of strength for the UK, Schengen I am more ambiguous. I think I am 60% in favour of Schengen. Like I have said, life is easy, it is a doddle to whisk from country to country and you really do feel that there is one EU rather than lots of itty-bitty countries. It is nice, and it is one of the (successful and) defining characteristics of European Integration and the peace that has held since the end of WWII and later on since the fall of Communism in Europe. But, Schengen has certain things about it that I do not like.

First the need for an ID Card system. One thing about the UK is the complete lack of paperwork needed. I do not have to carry my licence/insurance with me when I drive. It is assumed that I would not be on the road without them, and if I am stopped by the police, they have to do the leg-work to find out if I am legal or not. The presumption of innocent until proven guilty is what rules the UK's governance. Thankfully, we do not have an ID Card system, despite Lord Blair's resolve in trying to foist one onto us. Do not worry, we, are under surveillance, as it was the UK that invented the Police Force. Collectively we are just as scrutinised as any of our European cousins, but on an individual basis, life is remarkably free. In Schengen, I have to have some photo ID on me, which means as I do not have an ID Card, I have to always carry my passport. Even to pop out to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. And this is considered normal.

In the UK, no. My wallet contains cash, not my identification. It means that I am less likely to loose my ID, and so I am less likely to get screwed over.

So, as much as I love Schengen, I do not like the idea of ID Cards that come with it. I think there is a greater good that results from having free borders, but not from being obliged into burdening the individual with more paperwork.


So is the EU a good thing? For me, overall, I think it is a good thing. There are a lot of rights and freedoms that more recent British governments would have eroded had it not been for the EU. I think the freedom of movement for people, goods and capital is essential and should be broadened. It has made life for me very easy with regards to regular travel across Europe, something that the EU had in mind when it was first formed all those years ago. Along with NATO, it has helped to keep the peace in Europe for longer than any other system of governance. But the EU is cumbersome, and if it was not for difficult Britain, it would probably be far too uniform. I think it is a good thing there is no one size fits all Europe, but an EU that blends and flows according to the whims of its citizens. Personally, I think the whole institution should follow a Confederational model (rather than a Federal plan), but that kind of organisation would take aeons to achieve. But the good outweighs the bad, and as I jet off again this week to Poland for another trip to that (now) fairly cold country, I think to myself, thank goodness for the EU. It makes my life a lot more simple!

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