8 December 2014

David Cameron and the Pope as bosom eurobuddies? I didn’t see that one coming.

Did you miss the big speech on Europe? Fresh from pushing his followers towards a more liberal line on gay rights, it was David Cam – actually it was Pope Francis who made the most telling intervention on the future of the EU, warning MEPs in Strasbourg that the European project was ‘no longer fertile and vibrant’ and ‘slowly losing its own soul’.

He is right. Millions of British small businesses already know that the EU’s appetite for regulation is denting their competitive advantage – Brussels-approved oven gloves being the most recent example of a regulatory mindset that is at odds with the founding vision of creating wealth and security through trade between nations. Everyone in business has their own examples of how Europe’s bureaucrats have given them the benefit of their limited wisdom: vacuum-cleaner manufacturer James Dyson is critical of ‘sustainability legislation that rewards sustained mediocrity and waste’ and is taking the European Commission to court over its latest efficiency regulations. I know who I’d trust to make decent domestic products – and it isn’t Jean-Claude Juncker.

That the European Commission is so blind to the realities of commerce is hardly surprising. Only a handful of the 28 commissioners have any meaningful commercial experience running the sorts of businesses that ultimately pay their bills. The vast majority come from the law, academia and professional political careers, which perhaps explains their surprise that an unexpected bill for £1.7bn might piss off the unfortunate people having to cough up the readies. Likewise a shortfall to the tune of €259bn would prompt a fairly robust internal efficiency drive in the business world.

There is an arrogant culture of command economics, and you know we’re in deep trouble when the Commission President says ‘If Europe invests more, Europe will be more prosperous and create more jobs – it’s as simple as that’. Pope Francis’s description of the ‘bureaucratic technicalities’ of the EU’s institutions is spot on.

Over to the other speech on Europe: David Cameron was very good. Immigration is a big concern for people – I certainly found that canvassing back before the last general election. The UK’s system for redistributing wealth does throw up some clear incentives to up sticks from countries less well off than the UK. But remember that freedom of movement can also equate to asset stripping of nations, and in the past decade we’ve undoubtedly benefitted from harvesting some of the brightest, most laborious and entrepreneurial people from the EU’s newest members – and what their home country has gained in remittances, it has certainly lost in people with energy and innovation to drive their domestic economies forward. Tighter immigration controls may well be more palatable to scrapping tax credits for migrants (which I worry risks creating an underclass of migrants living on very, very little) but the depth of EU reform needed to restore controls over movement might require divine intervention.

So the battle to shape the future of the EU was laid out by two very different voices. One rooted in pragmatic politics, with a tougher line on immigration pitching to Labour’s blue collar voters as much as it is aimed at neutering, if not shooting, Nigel Farage’s fox. But it was the man from the Vatican whose critique resonated strongest with me, given the immense challenge of reforming the EU in the face of inertia from beneficiary states, not to mention the 23,000 people employed in Brussels’ ivory towers. Cardinal Bergoglio’s career was built on humble service and fiscal discipline with the Church’s resources, which sounds like something that the lawyers and professors of the Commission should be up for. But David Cameron and the Pope as bosom eurobuddies? I didn’t see that one coming.

First published by Platform 10 on December 8th, 2014