Leading article

France is now the sick man of Europe

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

It is a long time since the term ‘sick man of Europe’ could be applied to Britain. France is now a worthier candidate for the accolade — it -increasingly resembles a tribute act to 1970s Britain. A package of modest labour-market reforms presented by a socialist president has provoked national strikes on the railways and Air France. This week, the streets of Paris resembled one big Grunwick or Saltley Gate — the trials of strength between employer and union in which so many of Britain’s most bolshy trade unionists cut their teeth. This week is not a one-off: in recent years France has had a strike rate more than twice that of Denmark, its nearest European competitor.

Britain now looks a paradigm of -industrial virtue by comparison. We have far fewer strikes and on many other economic measures — with the disturbing exception of the public deficit — Britain consistently performs among the best EU nations. Our economic growth is set to be the best in -western Europe; our unemployment rate is half that of France and Italy and a quarter of that in Spain.

It is remarkable that Britain’s relative economic performance has not featured more in the EU referendum debate. In 1975, when we last had such a referendum, the Remain campaign (or Yes campaign as it then was, owing to the different wording of the question) could make a powerful case that Britain had much to learn from its European neighbours when it came to running a modern economy. Many Tories agreed, and Margaret Thatcher famously pulled on a sweater showing the flags of Common Market countries. A vote for Europe was a vote to discard the broken British economic model and join the powerhouses of the Continent.


Now the tables have turned, and it is pertinent to ask: why do we set so much store by selling to the stagnant economies of mainland Europe? Is such parochialism appropriate in an era of global free trade? If we want to learn anything now, we should be looking to the US, Canada and Singapore. Yet the Leave campaign has been remarkably coy in making this argument. Instead, it has concentrated on migration, bent bananas and how much we might save if we were no longer sending an annual subscription to the EU’s coffers: populist causes which have proved rather easy for the Remain side to attack.

That Britain is doing well is not -simply good luck, or the result of our country being at a different stage in the economic cycle. The blame for the sluggishness of our neighbours’ economies can be laid firmly at the door of the EU. And that Britain is outperforming them can be linked to the many times we have fought to escape EU -directives. The euro continues to hamper the recovery of southern European countries, leaving Greece, Italy and Spain unable to devalue in order to make their exports more attractive.

In many EU countries, unemployment is high because the social chapter has led to inflexible labour markets. As Tony Blair rightly said 20 years ago, there is -nothing ‘social’ about an economic model that excludes so many from employment. The EU’s regulatory instinct is always to dream up ways of preserving existing jobs, building a wall around the world of work. This creates a dichotomy between the protected and the unprotected. A truly social approach to economic prosperity would ask (as Britain does): how can we foster an environment in which new jobs are created?

Tony Blair now claims that in all his time as prime minister there was nothing that the EU prevented him from doing. But then he inherited — and enjoyed — several opt-outs which were denied to the 13 countries that have joined the EU since Blair entered No. 10. At every turn, Britain’s relative success can be traced to the times it broke free from disastrous EU schemes, from the Schengen project to abolish border controls to the single currency itself. Every time -Britain has placed more confidence in itself, and less in Brussels, we have reaped the dividends.

There is an argument that Britain should remain in the EU precisely in order to promote our successful economic philosophy — that it would be better for us in the long run if the likes of France, Italy and Spain were encouraged to create flexible labour markets, and that our influence would be better for them. But while officials at the Foreign Office will always fantasise about governing on behalf of other EU nations, it’s really not in their remit. If the French and Italians wanted a more liberal British-style approach, they’d vote for it.

It’s hard to think of a time when a British voter, looking at the Continent, has had less to envy. At least in part this explains why the polls remain close. In spite of the government’s increasingly shrill warnings, -voters are not persuaded that Britain owes her prosperity to a visibly crisis-struck Europe. It seems that the difficult but successful economic decisions taken by the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have fostered this confidence. It won’t be much consolation to either of them, but if we do end up voting to leave, they may have themselves to blame.

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Show comments
  • 9sqn

    When someone dreams up a figure extrapolated from the estimated GDP of Great Britain in 2030 divided by the number of households in Great Britain in 2016 and then uses that number to further an argument .. any argument .. and then that same person who dreamed it up is revealed as none other than the chancellor of the exchequer, I fear for the future of this country in or out of the European Union.

    • Alex

      What do you expect from Tories, who promote based on connections rather than ability.

      Look
      at the economic credentials – qualifications and experience – of the
      entire Labour top team over the past five years – Balls, Brown,
      Miliband, Darling.

      The British public looked at them too (or did
      the newspapers ever give them a proper look?), and instead twice chose
      empty, economically illiterate bluster tinged with cocaine residue.

      After
      all, the eighteenth baronet’s connections are second to none – except
      maybe to those of David Cameron, a b-stard fourth great-grandson of King
      William IV.

  • Tamerlane

    Socialism in action, they’ve run out of other people’s money!

    • Seax

      Indeed, it was given to the broken banks.

      • Tamerlane

        Not in France it wasn’t. That’s the point of the article you idiot. I’ve told you before. Engage brain before attempting clever comments.

  • John Carins

    To say that the UK has performed better than France because we have avoided certain EU directives is a very spurious connection. It is more to do with the grip that socialism has in France. Notwithstanding that, we should not be so smug. The French will be building our next nuclear reactor. The French control Airbus. The French control vast swathes of ex British defence industries. The French have high speed trains. The French control the European space programme – I could go on. The final nail though is despite only working 35 hour weeks their productivity is much higher than here in the UK. Their desire to have a proper work life balance is admirable.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Our being “a paradigm of industrial virtue by comparison” with France is doubtless a result of our following that wicked capitalist “Anglo-Saxon” model so excoriated by the French Left especially but to a large extent by French commentators in general. I like France and its people very much and it’s a puzzle why so much public discourse there is philosophically batty at best, and politically extreme at worst. And it conflicts with my (admittedly personal, anecdotal) experience that in talking to French friends, neighbours and acquaintances, they agree entirely that the EU is pretty bad and that their labour laws are bonkers…
    It’s not just the EU but France in which “the regulatory instinct is always to dream up ways of preserving existing jobs, building a wall around the world of work” – profoundly so. Look at the students (etc) of Nuit Debout, hardly radical or forward looking or creative, rather they are deeply reactionary in that they ignore the source of national wealth’s lying in free enterprise, and insist that the function of the economy is to provide jobs and total featherbedding for everyone…
    As for its being “better for us in the long run if the likes of France, Italy and Spain were encouraged to create flexible labour markets,” let’s not hold our breath – or stay in the EU – waiting for that to happen. The next Ice Age might happen sooner. Better Off Out instead of maintaining a doomed struggle to transform those countries’ self-destructive economic models.

  • Kandanada

    I am curious as to why we are told workers’ rights are better protected by staying in the EU. The French are rioting over pay and conditions and they are in the EU. In the UK, Labour and the trades unions set the foundation for workers’ rights. This was nothing to do with the EU.

    • balls

      What unions? Britain has no unions, Thatcher emasculated them.

      • Kandanada

        Especially the doctor’s union. That’s why the NHS hasn’t been affected by mass strike action this year.

        • balls

          I know, they took that pay cut well didn’t they?

          • Kandanada

            If they experience a pay cut it will be because they were creaming off a lot of bonus overtime pay. Basic pay is going up.

            I had a conversation with a chap a few weeks ago, an electrician who works at a hospital. His point was that the government needed to pump more money into the NHS.

            Ten minutes later, and without a jammy smear of irony, he brags to me that he covered last New Year’s Eve and got paid £1400 for a ten hour shift.

            Spot the problem?

          • Seax

            So should all overtime be banned in the UK?

            Should there only be one low rate for work? No low, medium or high charges? No ‘market forces’?

            I thought the right thought that the price should be down to market forces. If you supply a service then surely the price is what is needed to get someone to do the work?

            If I ask an electrician to re-wire my house on Christmas day how much would I need to offer to make he want to give up this festival?

            Why do you expect the behaviour of public sector workers to be one of being exploited for your benefit?

          • Kandanada

            Public sector workers on a basic of over £50k pa are not being exploited.

          • Seax

            They are if the private sector rate is £100k.

            Why do you think that highly skilled and qualified people should be paid badly?

            I assume you did not know that private sector workers, of equivalent standing, can earn £1000 per hour and more.

          • Kandanada

            Doesn’t matter about pay in the private sector. If they wanted private sector pay they would get a job in the private sector.

          • Seax

            My relative, a nurse in the NHS has had a 14% pay cut forced upon her already. They have been told to expect more.

            Should they strike?

          • Tamerlane

            She hasn’t had a 14% pay cut enforced on her, I’m afraid that would be illegal. Either you’ve got it wrong or you’re lying or misrepresenting her situation. Go back and try again.

          • Seax

            It is where you hold pay below inflation for years. That is a pay cut in real terms.

            My relative is far more experienced than she was jut is being paid less in real terms. That is a cut.

          • Tamerlane

            Okay so your answer would ‘I was misrepresenting’. Thought so.

      • Joey Edgecombe

        Well, this group is hanging in there:
        http://www.tuaeu.co.uk/

      • njt55

        And a good thing too – we were the laughing stock of Europe (if not the world) for as long as the unions held us to ransom, which they did all too frequently.

    • Jethro Asquith

      Spot on. Anyway why can a British Government not set the same or better rights for workers than the EU; assuming it is what we think is right and best for the country. Do the EU have some sort of monopoly on policy setting in this area.

    • Bonkim

      The French had been living in cloud cuckoo land economics for a long time assuming the rest of the EU will pay their bills. Next will be the agricultural subsidies the French farmers get. The farmers will spread manure on all the motorways in protest.

    • Seax

      The EU has workers’ rights and protections that we benefit from that the UK plutocracy want to get rid of.

      The UK plutocracy has hobbled UK unions and used the MSM to demonise them. Just look a few posts before this to see that the striking Doctors are called Marxists.

      Labour was infiltrated with Neo Libs and that did not help the working ‘man’.

      The good thing about the EU was that the UK plutocracy could not reject these laws without showing their hand…

      • Tamerlane

        The ‘UK plutocracy’ do not want to get rid of any of these laws except in your demented anger driven pea brained mind. As I always point out to the Left wing brigade if it wasn’t for the EU the workers at ailing factories could be bailed out by central government. The EU has done more damage to workers in this country than any political party ever did.

      • Kandanada

        We are ruled by an EU plutocracy. The lovely thing is, in a democracy we can vote for whomever we want.

        And if any government ever did “take away workers rights”, they would be voted out at the next election.

        With very few exceptions, no one gets premium rate overtime in this country any more.

        I am always wary of comments replete with labels, MSM, plutocracy, neo-Liberal, etc. The use of labels shows confirmation bias and can affect perception and critical thinking.

    • Joey Edgecombe

      This group of trade unionists recognise the erosion of UK workers’ rights through the EU: http://www.tuaeu.co.uk/

  • Chester Cuison

    Hollande and the EU made France the sick man of Europe. He should be overthrown.

    • Seax

      The banks wrecked the world economy. Anything else is secondary to that.

  • Marcus

    Leave rightly drill home the message that leaving the EU will make us better off as it is the ONLY economic argument not open to conjecture.
    Hence remain have to get pro EU quangos and Leftists to write letters stating we’ll be richer in. It is a good message; poorly delivered.

    • Seax

      Leave have lost the economic argument. They only have jingoism left.

      Oh, and Johnson’s claims of money for socialist organs like the NHS and oodles of jobs magicked from nowhere.*

      *Unless he means the hundreds of thousands of bureaucratic jobs needed to rewrite all of the agreements that we already have with other countries. I am sure the tax payer will just love that.

      • Alex

        Already we have ten times as many bureaucrats as the EU for one-tenth of the population.

        • Seax

          So you want 100x?

          • Alex

            I don’t mind really, the private sector certainly isn’t going to create enough jobs for everyone so it makes little difference, either way they are going to need to be paid with taxpayers’ money.

          • Seax

            Have you told the Brexiteers, Johnson included, that their taxes will have to increase to pay for all of these extra pointless and needless jobs?

          • Alex

            No point, most Brexiteers, Johnson included, aren’t paying any taxes – and want to keep it that way.

          • Seax

            I cannot disagree with that.

            However, Johnson did have to pay a lot of tax to the US IRS as he has American Citizenship. He has said, twice, that he will renounce this citizenship. Has he actually done this yet (rather than say he will)?

            I understand that last time he said he would renounce it, he renewed his American passport a few years later.

            Must be nice to have somewhere else to go if the UK goes pearshaped…

            http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2015/02/15/savvy-london-mayor-boris-johnson-paid-irs-is-now-renouncing-u-s-citizenship/#5debf6c86c70

            http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-27371673

          • Seax

            “Myth No 4 The UK is drowning in EU bureaucracy.

            Fact Yes, 33,000 people work for the European Commission, serving an entire continent. But more than 82,000 people work for HM Revenue & Customs alone. Spain has almost three million
            bureaucrats. In contrast to any of its members, the EU is a slimmed-down operation”.

            http://londyn.msz.gov.pl/pl/aktualnosci/artykul__seven_eu_myths_you_should_never_believe

  • Polly Radical

    Well, at least their Marxist-backed junior doctors aren’t on strike for more money and easier hours.

    • Seax

      Of course, anyone that wants to protect themselves and others from exploitation and reduced safety is a Marxist…

      • njt55

        I agree that the junior doctors were not marxist. But I disagree that their strike had anything to do with patient safety: it was all about money. And that’s fine, unless you dress it up as something else, which they did.

  • SeaNote

    Britain is sick of socialism, France is sick with socialism.
    Brexit before it’s too late.

    • Seax

      How can Britain be sick of socialism? It has suffered feral Neo Liberalism for at least 30 years.

      • Give our God Immortal Praise

        If we have or had liberalism how come we have an NHS?

      • njt55

        We are a social democracy. If we weren’t, we would not have the NHS and other welfare schemes.

  • Alex

    Britain is a paradigm [sic – surely “paragon” – just what did they teach these Speccie journos at private school?] of industrial virtue?

    What exactly is virtuous about the British rolling over like pathetic lapdogs, or more likely obliviously watching the X-Factor, as their workers’ rights are legislated away?

    Virtue is what the French trade unions are fighting to uphold: a business environment that works for the workers as well as for the executives.

    • Seax

      In this country the workers have been trained that they should accept what they are given and when that is taken away they should say ‘thankee’. If someone else dares to stand up for themselves they are mobbed by the next victims of the same exploitation. Who then expect help from those they mobbed.

  • noix

    The French economy is over regulated and the regulators have the best deal. Bureaucrats or functionaries get the best working conditions, salaries and pensions. When they make mistakes it is the victim who pays the consequences. I know of this from acquaintances here. One man lost his ability to drive HGV’s because of an error during the computerisation of driving licences, and needed testimony from his ex CO from the army to retain his driving licence. This is one example of many.
    Certain workers can retire at 53, and all years before their UK equivalents. Whilst social security is good in some respects the paperwork is deliberately burdensome, documents need to be resubmitted, even though they are the same as the last time, and birth, marriage certificates have to be ‘fresh’ , issued a maximum of three months before. No translations are provided, and foreign language documents have to be translated by officially approved people at great expense.

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