The big news story at the moment is the rather spectacular failure of David Cameron’s attempt to oppose the election of Jean-Claude Junker as the next EU Commission President. He forced a vote in which he was only supported by Hungary. It is easy to criticise politicians for all sorts of things for which they are not remotely responsible, but sorting out votes really is the sort of thing they should be good at.
In fact Cameron may have had a reasonable case. Junker’s CV looks respectable enough – he ran Luxembourg for a long time and they seem to have done okay during his tenure. But if the British press is to be believed – which to be honest is rarely the case – he is a bit of a chain smoking alcoholic. The first item on his agenda is apparently to get the rules changed so he can light up in his office. Speaking personally I like to see a bit of diversity among politicians. The logical and efficient Angela Merkel is good, but so is the down to earth common sense of Cameron (which he doesn’t seem to exercise on European issues). It is good to have a mix so I am happy to have a sozzled tobacco addict on the team. But I can see how some people might object.
But what is the real fundamental problem here? Basically the vote reflects the fact that Germany is really powerful. Junkers had the backing of Germany and most states would rather stay on the right side of the biggest economy in the EU. That is the way these things work and it takes great skill and guile to beat the laws of political gravity that pull smaller states into orbit around bigger ones. I am happy to live with this reality but I can see why it might stick in some people’s throats.
But what actually can be done about it? I am not impressed by the suggestion that we should leave the EU. That would make Germany even stronger relatively speaking than it already is. The UK is pretty impotent at the best of times, especially when adopting tactics that would be rejected as immature by the average toddler, but at least there is an outside chance of having some influence. If we leave the club even futile tantrums will be impossible.
The reality is that Germany’s power has a solid foundation. It has the largest population in the union. That population is largely made up of well educated and productive people. Even geography helps, with a central location right in the heart of the European market. There is good reason behind it being the EU’s powerhouse. Compared to Britain its population is 20% bigger and it has about 30% more land area. So they are batting with a big advantage.
So if Britain wants parity of influence with Germany we have a tough job. Basically it means we need on average to be about 20% more productive than the average German. Tough, but not totally impossible. How would we go about it? Not many of the government’s flagship policies are going to help.
For a start in the modern world we need a really well educated workforce. I think this needs to be education in the broadest sense including training opportunities in technology, science, craft skills, marketing and the softer but still important things like administration. Maybe raising tuition fees for conventional education is necessary as part of this, but it doesn’t immediately sound like a great idea. But whatever, it is the results that count. If we want to beat the Germans we need to do things at least as well and preferably better than them.
We also need to spend enough money on infrastructure. The country has to work so we need the kit to make it so. Germany of course is bigger and it is easier to have efficient road and rail networks when you have more room. We need creative solutions to overcome our disadvantages. I am quite happy to see deadwood unimaginative time serving civil servants sacked, if that is what they are. But surely we have to find problem solvers to replace them. Just cutting government spending and reducing the number of public servants will do nothing at all. Branding it as ‘austerity’ doesn’t make me like it any more.
Physical infrastructure is one thing, but we also need to make sure it works well. There has been a lot of contracting this sort of stuff out to private companies. If that works well, fine. If it doesn’t stop and bring it back in house. Don’t let ideology determine the policy.
The other thing we need is an active regional and industrial policy. London is a remarkable city, and much that goes on there is world beating stuff that benefits the country as a whole. But if we are to match Germany we can’t rely on that alone. We need to rebuild the industrial areas and create new industries in the whole country. This means inevitably transferring resources from the richer to the poorer parts of the country. This already happens, but it needs to be on a much larger scale. We need to get the average productivity of the average worker up across the whole country. This won’t be done without some serious financial heavy lifting to create the necessary investment in currently underperforming places.
It’ll mean higher taxes, more government involvement and a lot of creative thinking. But that is the only way that a British Prime Minister can realistically stand up to the German chancellor. Speaking personally, I couldn’t really care less who is in the driving seat in Europe – the chances of a German politician coming up with a good idea are about the same as for a British one. But I quite like the sound of the programme that we would need to be in with a chance ourselves.