Northern lights at the end of the tunnel

By Thomas Kingston

To deny the EU is in crisis would be tantamount to imbecility and is something most political groupings agree on. So with the majority agreeing Europe is broken and that something needs to happen in reaction to this meltdown, why there is so much bickering?

Well mainly this is due to people’s perceptions of how to fix the problem. We have the UKIPers, backwoodsmen of the Tory party, and the Far Left demanding that we get out ASAP, the more moderate left and right wingers believe we should seek reform and try to patch up the sorry mess before we clamber into the lifeboats to watch SS Europa sink beneath the waves and then, of course, there’s the minority who seem to think Europe is pretty hunky dory and are somewhat at a loss with regards to what everyone is kicking up a fuss about (I’m looking at you Ken Clarke QC!)

It’s a quite regular occurrence, when conversation inevitably drifts to Europe at some political event, to hear people claiming that the EU should return to what it was originally meant to be – a free trade region based on economic cooperation. Yet, with the Europe Declaration being as old as the European Coal and Steel Community (precursor to the EEC and the EU) I struggle to see how anyone can see the original purpose being as free and glorious as a simple grouping of countries abolishing trade tariffs and getting quite pally in order to prevent another world war.

From its outset, a federal Europe was inevitable. And, over 60 years later, this federal Europe is edging closer to reality every day. But what should we do? I think most people would agree the United States of Europe isn’t something we should be part of but that doesn’t settle what we should do instead. The most common suggestion is EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, but that still means we would have follow EU instructions, regulations and directives on matters including labour laws, environmental policy, consumer protection and company law.

These tend to be the most red tape-filled areas of them all and we would not even have a real say on these matters as we wouldn’t be part of any EU committees. Yet we would still have to contribute significant funds to be part of the club. Norway, for example, contributes €340,000,000 per year as well as €1.8 billion in grants to other European regions and has not voting powers or say on EU policy. In fact the leader of Norway’s Høyre (literal translation is Right, but ideologically is similar to the Conservatives) party advises against the UK leaving the EU for EFTA/EEA in no uncertain terms.

So, with one of the most popular alternatives turning out to be paying a little bit less in order to receive a lot less influence, what are we left with? (Obviously discounting the miracle that would be Cameron managing to renegotiate our position in the EU successfully).

My suggestion, if we edge any closer to a federal superstate with further loss of sovereignty, would be to pursue closer ties with our Nordic neighbours across the North Sea. It’s doubtful this would affect our trade relations with the rest of Europe too much, and as loathe as I am to quote him, the words of Mr Farage hold some truth in stating that European car manufacturers aren’t going to stop selling us their Renaults, Peugeots, Seats or Fiats simply because we leave the EU.

My reasoning for this is as follows: it is my firm belief that we hold a lot more in common with these nations than you might think, though more obvious in my corner of the world (the North Sea Coast of Yorkshire) with place names like Danby (town/village of the Danes) and the local dialect having some words close enough to Old Norse to be understood by Scandinavians. But this is applicable to most of England (and various regions of Scotland too).

The EU agricultural system is geared towards our southern European partners to an overwhelming extent, too, with crops like tobacco, cotton and olives featuring prominently in the Common Agricultural Policy – these plants are extremely unlikely to be found flourishing on the Yorkshire Wolds, the South Downs or in the Fenlands.

I don’t blame the EU for supporting these crops (apart from the obvious argument against protectionism but that’s for another day) as, no doubt with global competition, the EU member states that can grow them need all the help they can get but this is just one example of how the EU, from its original incarnation as a Rhine Valley-centred organisation, has been forced to expand its support provisions and thus, as with anything that grows, has been forced to provide a lot less specific and tailored support. But if we partnered with Nordic Nations, we could co-operate on issues like this as, with relatively similar climates, our crops are necessarily rather similar too.

Fisheries are another area that could benefit, too. Currently, we have Spanish, Portuguese and French ships trawling the North Sea – an area that if Britain co-operated with Iceland, Norway, Denmark and the Faroe Islands so it could be carefully managed and not exploited by those who have no ties to the region, have no understanding of its unique ecosystem and instead seek profit above all else.

Renewable and managed fish stocks are in everyone’s interest. The UK fishing industry has been hit hard by EU regulations, from the ludicrous rules on discarding fish to the mismanaged quota system, though only providing around 0.07% of the UK’s GDP it provides 30,000 full time jobs directly and many more positions indirectly we obviously should be doing all we can to support this industry.

General outlook on life and business are other areas in which we find our similarities with the Nordic states being a lot closer than those of the Mediterranean nations, from Greece’s large scale fraud and false accounting (and that’s just with regards to what it’s submitted to the EU, never mind its internal problems) to Italy’s corruption and economy of crime (organised crime making up around 10.9% of GDP), it’s clear the culture and business practice of these nations are somewhat alien when compared with Finland, Sweden and Denmark, who regularly top the global anti-corruption tables.

In Britain, though not perfect, we’re quite supportive of equal opportunities for women in the workplace a frame of mind shared by Sweden (purported to be “The Best Place to be a Woman”) and Iceland, which topped the gender equality tables. Yet our southern European partners compare very poorly, with Italy’s female employment rate coming in at 46.5% and Greece’s rate even lower.

With the welfare state being something else we have in common with the Nordic states, whether you’re a fan or not, it’s an embedded part of culture, with all the Nordic states possessing an advanced form of welfare state, as opposed to some EU nations who are in possession of a rather backwards mess. This being the case it seems to make sense to work closely with nations who share similar core institutions on improving them.

I could rant on about this issue for  days but the underlying message of the argument is that, with huge cultural and practical differences like this, it’s inevitable that a one-size-fits-all approach is going to lose out on the efficacy and accuracy that a tailored strategy based upon the similarities and shared good practice could provide. And, as selfish as it sounds, I believe we should ditch the economic and political deadweight of the stagnating Mediterranean nations and align ourselves closer in a pact of cooperation, whether that be economic, intellectual or industrial, with the Nordic states.

Plus, being as we would be a founding member of such a grouping, we could hopefully help create the sort of community that would benefit everyone, utilising the powers of collective bargaining whilst freeing up other diplomatic powers that could be used to create treaties outside of the grouping (with the Commonwealth for example). It’s important to remember that Norway, Sweden and Iceland all have growing economies too, at a much faster rate than our own (2.1%, 1.4% and 1.4% respectively), which is something that Greece and Italy – the nations we’re currently shackled to – definitely don’t have (-5.7% and-2.8%).

So I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass to our northern neighbours across the sea who, unlike our current partners, appear to be doing it right!

Thomas Kingston is chairman of the Central Asian Enterprise and Investment Forum and City of London editor of Legal InCite Magazine.