Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Europe - Bridges to Everywhere

 Listening to Today, this morning there was a spokesman for the Vote Leave Campaign, John Moynihan.  When challenged by the figures of the cost of membership quoted on their campaign website, he had to admit that the listed figure was gross costs, and that the EU spends money in the UK, on farmer subsidies for example and, in a memorable phrase "the bridges to nowhere up in the far reaches of Scotland."

Congratulations John Moynihan.  You have just lost the Scottish vote and made clear your small nationalistic, Anglo-centric selfishness.

Let us examine this strand of thought.  As many readers will know, I grew up in England but also have an Irish background.  The first time I was in Ireland, in the late 1970s, even I as a teenager was shocked at the state of the roads in Ireland.  We did a grand tour of the Republic as Dad wanted to exercise his brand-new Alfa Romeo Sprint.  It was a great car for those roads.  Dual carriageway was rare.  A-Roads (T for trunk roads in Ireland) were single-carriageway and frequently dwindled to UK B-Road standards.  Growing up in East Anglia as I did, I had a good comparator to compare rural roads of the two nations.  Irish roads were definitely worse.

As a small digression, I still miss the old warning signs on Ireland's roads.  When there was a series of bends ahead, the first notice, painted directly on the road would be "SLOW,"  The next warning would read "SLOWER PLEASE."  Wonderful!

Returning to the point though, Ireland joined the European Common Market (ECC) at the same time as the UK.  It takes time to modernise a nation, even a small one.  When I returned to Ireland in the early 1990s, it was clear that the road-modernising program was well underway.  Many of the contractor's work signs had at the bottom "Funded by the European Union".

This level of investment was certainly a large part of the improvement of the Irish economy.  During the 1980s, EU investment and infrastructure-building was the only bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture.  When the economic policies changed, the investment made by the EU rapidly paid off.  The Celtic Tiger began to roar.

What, if anything, did this mean for the United Kingdom?  The UK is Ireland's major trading partner (accounting for about one third of Ireland's exchange);  a richer Ireland meaning greater trade.  It is worth noting also that in terms of economic free-trades indices, Ireland rates ninth overall in global free-trade economies: showing that it is perfectly possible to have the kind of freedom of trade that critics claim is being stifled by the European Union.  Even after the 2008 crash (brought about in large part by poorly-regulated over lending by banks), Ireland is now on the road to recovery, with economic growth in 2015 of about six percent, three times the European average.

Doubtless John Moynihan would have classed Ireland's EU road development schemes among the "bridges to nowhere" projects that he so readily dismissed this morning.  It goes to show though that with vision, dedication and patience, this kind of long-term spending pays off.  It's not just about the economic figures though: at it's heart it is about improving people's lives.   I have seen this again and again: in Portugal, Greece and Bulgaria, the EU backs infrastructure projects and, while it may take time, the quality of people's lives improve.  

That is the main reason why, despite its flaws, I passionately back the European Union.  At it's heart there is a vision of being part of a greater whole.  I don't like using the metaphor of a family but in terms of European, we share a common history and cultural values.  In spending funds from the Central European Fund to improve infrastructure and transport, we are looking after our own.   Don't believe me in this?  A good example is Jeremy Clarkson when he did his television series travelling across the continent.  Hardly a raving liberal, he pretty much came to the same conclusions on the commonality of Europe as I have here and, it was clear, that he surprised himself in doing so.

Even the current refugee crisis is an appeal to rise to our better natures.  While working in North Africa in the previous decade, I was talking with Tunisian colleagues and it became clear that they were looking to Europe as a role model for their own region's development.   These people may not be of the same European family but they are our neighbours and now much of the region is in deep trouble.  Europe has a duty to help, even if it is ultimately up to the people of the Near East to sort out their own problems.  It is certainly not the role of Europe to thwart peace by engaging in wars without end.

There is a nobility at the heart of the European Union.  Yes, there are great problems too but since when did that change?  The nobility is held within that vision of being one family.  Trading with each other, improving the lives of others and being there to help in times of crisis, such as now.

That is why I am a Briton and a European.  Vote to stay in the European Union and support a noble cause.

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