Views on the EU from across the Atlantic

Earlier this week I spent two days in the US, taking up a long-standing invitation to give a lecture on the European Union at Harvard. While I was on the other side of the Atlantic, I also took the opportunity to talk to various stakeholders — politicians, academics, diplomats, trade union representatives — and discuss a wide range of issues where Europe and the US have overlapping interests.

I already knew that the Americans were among the strongest advocates for Britain keeping its place at the heart of the European Union. But as I talked to people, it struck me that sometimes you have to step outside your own country — or continent — in order to hear views that portray it in a more positive light.

One commentator I spoke to was interested in comparing the US and Europe in terms of our economic situations. He listed various advantages that the USA has over Europe: a single language, more entrepreneurship, a younger age profile, greater flexibility, and the possibility of more rapid political decision-making (for instance, during the financial crisis). On the other hand, he also pointed out that Europe has succeeded in lifting far more people out of poverty than the USA.

From 1950 to 2013, the bottom 90% saw their standards of living rise by 70% in the US, compared to rising by 250% in France and Germany or 150% in Italy. US growth has benefited the top 10% disproportionately and the top 1% even more. Average take-home pay for an average full-time male worker in the USA is no higher today than it was in 1975! And the European Union is the part of the world where inequality has grown the least in the years since the financial crisis.

I jotted down many other comments made by people I met during my trip. Here is a representative selection, in no particular order!

The European Union is the best invention of the 20th century.

Only a couple of dozen countries jumped from low to high income over the past half century — some because of oil, a couple through aggressive small-scale tiger economies, and the rest because they joined the European Union.

Europe is a lifestyle superpower. [This observation was referring to our combination of civil liberties, democracy, culture, social welfare, and leisure (paid holidays are rare in America).]

There is now little talk of a democratic deficit in the European Union – thanks in large part to the rise of the European Parliament. Other issues are now the most hotly debated ones.

We Americans see the euro and Schengen as fantastic achievements.

Europe has proved itself capable of renewal, again and again.

Cameron’s crazy, ceaseless talk of leaving the European Union is like a marriage in which one partner raises every evening the prospect of leaving in a couple of years’ time. [Presumably with the implication that this is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy even if he doesn’t mean it!]

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  1. The TTIP trade deal is a massive threat from USA. They are trying to force GMO tech, pesticides, lower food quality, private medicine with all the inherent problems. I hope you are not a flag waver for TTIP.

  2. The US view of the EU is interesting, but it’s down to the citizens in each EU country to decide whether or not they want to continue the EU experiment – and if that’s going to happen then the EU must change the way its perceived within its member countries, and quite frankly it must stop making stupid decisions (or have a system in place for rapid correction when a good decision gets overtaken by events). I speak, of course, of the fiasco over EU VAT – a bad decision which is strangling the tiniest startups, and really characterises the way the EU allows itself to be perceived: full of good ideas and fine words (like the single digital market) but completely unable to butter any parsnips. Instead of directly tackling Luxembourg and Amazon (the true targets of this mess) the EU VAT MESS victimises everybody else, rewards Luxembourg with extra cash, and gives Amazon an even bigger advantage in the marketplace.

    In the meantime, HMRC is floundering with rules it barely understands and has produced software which it now knows is completely unfit for the purpose. Small companies, individual entrepreneurs and even high street accountants are floundering with a system that is bureaucratic and unclear and yet threatens with eye-watering penalties.

    Whilst some people (like yourself) listen sympathetically, nothing gets done to fix the problem because that would need agreement by 28 different countries, some of whom (like the UK) are worse affected than others.

    It doesn’t take too many of these blunders before people will start to question whether we really are better off in the EU, or whether the UK should withdraw. I think that if the UK pulls out, then many others will follow and the whole edifice could collapse like a pack of cards. I wouldn’t like to see that at all, but right now I’m thinking that the EU is its own worst enemy and without drastic changes it will become the architect of its own destruction.

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