‘It’s time to talk up what Europe has brought UK’

As a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU looks set to be announced in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, the President of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce in Paris, Bob Lewis appeals for the pro-European voices to be heard.

'It's time to talk up what Europe has brought UK'
it's time to talk up what Europe has done for Britain, says the president of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce in Paris. Photo: Flickr/Kelham Neelanraju

Britain in Europe – Make Europe Work!

(Bob Lewis – President of the FBCCI)

When David Cameron promised in January 2013 that should his party win a majority at the 2015 election, he would hold an in/out referendum on the UKs membership of the European Union by the end of 2017, I must admit many Brits working and living in France were asking me if they should take French citizenship. As the coalitions term rolled on, a  [Conservative] parliamentary majority looked unlikely and any promise of a referendum something of an empty one.

However, uncertainty about whether a referendum would ever take place did not deter those seeking to turn the debate on the UK in Europe negative.

Anti-European voices were heard loud and clear during the General Election campaign, from UKIP to the many other parties worried about a swing to UKIP in their constituencies. We all heard a great many anti-European messages as our social media feeds ran hot with the scare stories of how ruinous the EU is for Britain’s future.  

So whilst it seemed that few positive voices on the UK in the EU were heard during the election campaign, it also seemed that across the Channel politicians were unwilling to give a chance to David Camerons vision of a renegotiation of Britains role in the EU.  Pre General Election, everyone from François Hollande to Jean-Claude Juncker poured scorn on the very idea that Europes fundamentals could be unravelled by an unhappy bunch of Britons.

Events of May 7th have changed everything. A clear majority for David Camerons conservatives makes the referendum “la certainty”, and suddenly that deafening silence from Europe over the issue of reform seems to be abating. 

Give us a vote: we've got most to lose if UK quits

Only last week none other than Germanys Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Germany had a “huge interest” in the UK remaining a “strong and engaged” member of the EU. Germany and France hold general elections of their own in 2017, and the Conservatives have shown the way forward in winning a majority against the odds.  Maybe EU reform is a vote winner after all?

So now the planets seem to aligning, Id like to see and hear more voices from the Pro-European camp start to speak up for why the UK should be proud of its role in Europe, and recognise the part that Europe has played in recent economic successes.  It wont surprise anyone to learn that I am a proud European.

In my 30 year career on both sides of the Channel, I have seen first-hand how the UK has become a better place to do business, and how Britons in Europe have become more comfortable taking their place in an international environment.  Is it really such a bad thing that UK workers now have a minimum wage, longer holidays and paternity leave?

Have they stopped the British economy from continuing to grow? The common market has enabled Britain to attract many French skills, capital and know-how to help drive our economy.

I am proud of how many French business leaders I meet speak enviously of how the UK is showing a lead on job creation. I like hearing how the British economy is seen as a model for others in Europe to follow. This is influence at work.  We can do much more to have the type of Europe we want if we work from within than if we agitate for a clean break.

So I look forward to the Queens Speech as a moment to announce the referendum, I hope the Government will bring it forward if possible, and above all take advantage of David Camerons stock being so high right now to start making friends in Europe. Now is the time for measured diplomacy and making the EU work for the UK. In French, the phrase “brosser dans le sens du poil” (literally 'brush the hair in the right direction' but translated as 'cosy up to' or 'rub up the right way') sums it up perfectly.

Cameron can be a master of rubbing people up the wrong way, but he has a window of opportunity where he can make Europe work for Britain. If the British Government can hold its side of the bargain we will hear the positive voices grow louder and louder. I call on those positive voices to seize control of the debate over Europe. Lets start talking up all the great things Europe has brought the UK, and look forward to what the UK can continue to bring to our friends in Europe.

Bob Lewis is the President of the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the voice of Franco-British business in France. FOr more information on the FBCCI you can visit its website




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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.