Our British friends, who have stood by us every time we needed them throughout a difficult decade, are being battered this week by their fellow Europeans for refusing to follow the Continent’s lemmings over an economic cliff.
This makes me reconsider an idea that I have been toying with for years: What if the United Kingdom, and perhaps Ireland as well, were to leave the European Union and enter into a free trade zone with the United States, Canada and Mexico? This would turn the North American Free Trade Agreement into a North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement.
The idea has much to recommend it. Protectionists could keep their anti-NAFTA bumper stickers. The rest of us would enjoy an expanded marketplace and labor force that are a good cultural and political fit with North America. A better fit, actually, than Britain makes with the rest of the EU.
The U.K. has always had a sizable crowd of euro-skeptics, which kept the country from adopting the euro currency but could not stop power over the country’s trade and industry slowly, but steadily, migrating from London to Brussels. In finance, however, the Bank of England retained more autonomy than other central banks because it did not need to share jurisdiction with the European Central Bank. Thus the U.K. has been able to partially offset fiscal austerity with American-style easy monetary policy. This has allowed it to slog through the post-Lehman downturn without exposure to the sovereign debt cancer that threatens France and other core EU economies.
This week, those core European countries made a big grab for power over London’s financial sector. The motivation is pretty simple: Europe needs money, and London has some. Leaders on the Continent want to impose a tax on financial transactions, seeing that as a quick and easy way to raise the funds that will be needed to bail out both the euro’s profligate members and the French and German banks that were strong-armed into lending to spendthrift countries.
A financial transactions tax is small potatoes in places like Milan or Frankfurt, whose trading is mostly of regional interest. It is a much bigger deal to London, which is a world financial center rivaling New York and Hong Kong, and which could easily lose substantial business because of such a tax. Britain’s economy also relies on financial services much more heavily than those of Germany or France do.
So Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed EU treaty changes that would have given Brussels more direct power over the City of London (the U.K.’s version of Wall Street). Most of the remaining EU countries will simply make the changes they want via mutual agreements and domestic law. The veto has led to a barrage of catcalls from European leaders, who say Britain is insufficiently loyal to Europe and now is isolated from EU policymaking, and from the U.K. Labour Party, whose political and economic preferences are more aligned with the Continent’s than with those of Cameron’s Conservatives.
I think Cameron did the only sensible thing he could do. There is no point in handing over control of Britain’s most dynamic industry to people whose primary goals are to hobble and fleece it.
Continental Europe has long been hostile to what it calls “Anglo-Saxon capitalism.” The Financial Times defines Anglo-Saxon capitalism this way: “characterised, at the level of states, by lower taxes, looser regulation, a weaker social-safety net and greater ease for firms to hire and fire employees – and to take each other over. At the level of individual firms and businesses, Anglo-Saxon capitalism is said to emphasise the interests of shareholders, rather than other stakeholders such as employees. Its critics say that it emphasises short-term profits at the expense of long-term planning.” The newspaper contrasts this with the “corporatist” models favored on the Continent, in which relationships with banks are emphasized over obligations to shareholders, and which is more accepting of a “state-led industrial policy.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has long sought to sideline Britain and its economic principles. Michel Barnier’s appointment two years ago as the EU single market chief prompted Sarkozy to crow that it was “French ideas for regulation that are triumphing in Europe.” He added, “The English are the big losers in this business.”
This would be an excellent time for President Obama to throw Cameron a political lifeline by suggesting that the United States would welcome Britain’s admission to NAFTA if the country ever decided to leave the EU. I doubt such a move would ever happen. Just by putting the idea out there, however, Obama could make Britons’ life amid their nosy neighbors much easier by showing that they can always move someplace where they are more welcome. Frankly, I think we owe the Brits at least this much.
It would not be a bad idea to extend the same invitation to the Irish. Their situation is a bit more awkward, because Ireland uses the euro, and Ireland accepted a package of bailout loans a year ago from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. But the Irish are, in terms of economic culture and policy, an even better fit with North America than the British. Ireland is bouncing back from its post-crash troubles on the strengths of a hard-working population and an attractively low 12.5 percent corporate tax rate. That tax rate is exceedingly annoying to EU titans France and Germany, which will force Ireland to raise it if they ever get the opportunity. And Irish expatriates and their descendants are well represented in the U.S. and Canada.
America and Canada could gain a lot by having a trade-area foothold on Europe’s doorstep. We should, of course, expect Continental Europe to react to an American presence on its collectivized doorstep with outrage. Exiting the EU would mean a loss of preferential market access for those members departing, but that loss would probably be tempered by the fact that Europe’s economic connections to Britain and Ireland are so deep and complex that Europe cannot afford to completely sever ties with or severely damage them.
I’m just playing with an idea here. It won’t happen, especially with this president. Barack Obama’s economic outlook is probably more European than that of his British and Irish counterparts. He isn’t going to offer them a free pass into NAFTA.
On the other hand, maybe he could offer to trade places with them. Think of the possibilities: Britain joins NAFTA, and America becomes part of the EU and adopts the euro. This is, after all, the president who ran on a platform of undefined “change.” He’d probably like the idea of being the first American president to also be a European leader.