Riding the European Project
I’m literally riding the European project home. It’s a triumph of determined collaboration that started life as a proposal before a panel of experts at the European Commission.
Nowadays I live off my 2 small and arguably European dependent businesses, SplashMaps and consultancy, dbyhundred. So it may be a unique and slightly biased view that you get from me regarding Brexit. More I hope it’s a perspective you can identify with and might help you later this month. I am wavering as I write.
I’ve spent the last 2 weeks in Brussels. I’ve a great contract that, for short periods in the year, has me working with the best and brightest of Europe’s scientists and innovators to help determine which projects are worthy of substantial amounts of European funds.
With the looming referendum I embarked on a mission to see if there’s a rational answer to the anticipated question. “In, or out?”.
Europe is centralising constantly
By chance I met Bruno Waterfield, Brussels correspondent for the Times, with his wife Emily (herself a legal journalist). Until this encounter I was unwaveringly European and definite “inny”. After all, my wife is half French and quarter Polish (possessing the very best traits of both of course!), my mother is Danish but of Icelandic parents and I seem always to have been continuously involved with at least one European project in the last 20 years of my career. So European unions of one sort or another have certainly shaped my family.
Bruno’s stance was simple. Europe is centralising constantly. The decisions they make are weird and tie us in knots of red tape as they plough more of our money into studies destined to support ever more restrictions on our lives, imposed by unelected bureaucrats. In fact this Brexit is our final chance to put a brake on the relentless journey toward unwanted centralism and a ceding of our democracy to some distant power.
Couldn’t he be right? I don’t notice there being a department for independence of nation states at the EU. And certainly human rights legislation and directives on packaging, additives and electricals have always added complexity to the innovation projects I’ve always been attracted to.
Europe helps drive innovation
But then there’s, the rather useful INSPIRE directive, which now obliges member states to make their environmental data, including some prime mapping resources, free of charge for use and re-use by anyone. Initially opposed to this (my employer at the time made a living off the data that was to be made free) I am now one of the thousands of beneficiaries of the era of Open Data that the legislation heralded. SplashMaps’ own cartography within Great Britain is based upon Open Data which would never have happened without that legislation. In dbyhundred, and on behalf of my client, EuroGeographics, I’ve project managed the INSPIRE implementation project, ESDIN, in order to make the continent’s mapping data “harmonise”. I then managed the bid to take this further and create the blue prints for a European Location Service in the ELF project. And now, as co-sponsor of GeoMob, I regularly have the pleasure of presenting prizes to brilliant presenters that are using this new standardised and free data for ever more outstanding things, like exposing the corruption behind our own property ownership in London (check our story on “Who owns London”).
So, in fact, the legislation from Europe helps drive innovation as it funds more and more Open Data and Open Source Software initiatives and the freedom of movement for the scientists and specialists in these areas to meet, work and dream together. My own businesses show the direct connection between this activity and the prosperity it delivers.
Do you want to pay tariffs?
Part way through my time in Brussels, and riding the same project as it headed toward the tunnel, I met Nicole from one of the world’s best known web businesses. Having recently suffered deep-vein thrombosis attributed to a very jet-set life style she was travelling, by doctors order, on the Eurostar. Why does it take a near-death experience for some people to choose the train? Nicole’s rational. She’s the logistics lady for the world-wide operation. Liaising on all the distant areas on their approach to embargoes, tariffs and the absurdities of shifting stuff across borders. Naturally, being an American pragmatist, she is very in favour of Europe. Clearly dealing with one trading block once was way preferable to dealing with 27 individual countries. She was amazed to hear me wavering. “Your product is manufactured in continental Europe!” she explained. “Do you want to pay tariffs and suffer customs delays for your products??”
The need to rise above our egos
My colleagues were sanguine. It’s a transient crowd when I go to Brussels. But there’s a knot of a few that’ll entertain my love of Brussels food and beer and here came another perspective.
Britain is the second largest economy in the EU. This isn’t lost on the Lithuanians, Spanish, Greek, Dutch, Swedish and others I’m hanging around with. They want to know which way I’m voting. We don’t see many Germans at these events, but certainly most others see a need for change. We get a false impression here that the rest of the European states are fine with charging ahead with centralisation.
Between my two weeks in Brussels I came back to have a business breakfast with one of the SplashMaps investors. Mike’s very bright (and business savvy as you’d expect) and he’d just completed his thesis on the security aspects in Europe (the final part of his degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics). A little like Maslow’s hierarchy, all these plans of unity get lost as soon as the vital foundation layer of security begins to waver. It turns out that collectively we behave just like individuals. The need to rise above our egos to an enlightened future of hope and unity are quickly forgotten once something happens to unsettle our sense of security. Right now, Mike proposed, there are 2 forces at work that put all focus on the immediate and take attention away from the dreams of a harmonious future. Immigration and terrorism. Following initial outpourings of generosity and support for people escaping the horrors of ISIS, European states are closing their borders, raising higher frontiers and defying most of the big project principles.
Brussels and Paris have heavily armed soldiers on the street and in the Metro. Even if (in Brussels) their kit looks rather historic, “it’s still a little unsettling to be shunted around by men with machine guns at the airport,” one American friend told me.
Russian sense of mischief
Yes, we (as in Europeans) have lost some freedoms to a couple of understandable knee-jerk reactions that make each country revert back to the perceived security blanket of isolationism . But do we need to let this shape our future dreams? Surely all this stuff is temporary?
Looking further East, what of those with more of a geographical weariness of a lurking neighbour?
Back to our shipping expert, Nicole. She tells me the embargo the USA placed on Ukraine since the unlawful invasion of the Crimean peninsula by Russia does nothing to quell the Russian sense of mischief. Merely it cuts the struggling democracy further from their dreams of a better life and prosperity as commercial engagement with the West has died.
In many of the EU member states memories don’t have to be long to draw some obvious and unpleasant conclusions. Adamos (from Lithuania) was forced into 2 years of Russian military service. His country borders the military enclave of Russian power. A tiny fragment of a country gives the Russians access to the Baltic and a nice space to flex some muscle.
The Russians are constantly testing defences in the Baltic countries. The European Union finances the Typhoons that patrol the skys there to chase the invaders away. The Lithuanians can clearly see that a weakening of the European Union is exactly what the Russians want to see. A weakening of their western neighbours will be the opportunity for the next Land Grab. Friends in Finland feel just the same.
What is the European Project?
Our work nearly over at the commission, an Austrian colleague wandered over. “How are you travelling home?” he asked. People had been checking schedules all day. Problems with the planes are often expected at the recently bombed airport. “Eurostar” I said rather smugly. I do love the train – weirdly I always feel more shunted about when flying. “You do realise that you’ll be travelling on a genuine European project?” he asked. He went on to describe how the complexities of the three different voltage systems between Belgium, France and Britain necessitated some pretty sophisticated thinking, a mixed skill set and a consortium of at least 5 companies to crack. Like all the projects I witness, this project will have gone through a fair vetting process with measures to ensure that the outcomes will lead to progress beyond the state of the art, results will have been disseminated and shared to support wider prosperity and the growth of European prosperity as a result. Do the companies that collaborated continue to do so? At least the measures are there in the EU to support progress from the old supplier and customer relationships of the past to the deeper more interdependent partnerships that are the basis of a competitive trading block.
All this makes me feel pretty inny. So what would make me feel more “outy”? Well, for me it would have to be a convincing story that we can continue to trade better outside
An observation by Matt Holehouse, the Telegraph’s man in Brussels, over a Hoegraden in the Ixelles part of town, surprisingly allayed some fears. His observation was that there is no indication that the level of centralisation is increasing. Britain is not the only country concerned about centralisation and the Union appears to be responding. Can the monster be tamed? Clearly it’s pretty hard to get 27 other countries to agree to any single change, so perhaps it’s time for reform. But is it time to throw away all this collaboration and the benefits it brings?
I haven’t voted yet, but the past 2 weeks’ research has helped me reach the right answer for me as a small and innovative business owner. Now it’s time to await the results and ignore the rot on the telly!