OPINION: Parlez-vous european?

Every UK citizen should perhaps be made to write an article on the German asset management industry in the run-up to the referendum on UK membership of the European Union on 23 June. I’ve just written one (page 12) and nothing could have been more instructive as to the business and economic benefits of the single European market.

A single European market for financial services has not been easy to achieve – indeed has not been achieved – but the progress made over the past 20 years is considerable.

It’s all there to see in Germany where foreign fund managers, very many of them British, now sup at the trough of German savings alongside their indigenous counterparts.

This could all be lost if the British are persuaded by the sometimes xenophobic arguments of the Leave campaign on 23 June. For the repercussions of Brexit, it is very clear, would go well beyond British shores and beyond economics.

“Strictly speaking, the cost of a UK exit looks manageable for the EU,” writes Maxine Alimi of Axa Investment Managers in one of the many jittery investment reports that have been released in the run-up to the referendum. “In our view, however, the bigger picture is what will matter most and determine the ultimate cost of Brexit. What is at stake with Brexit is the future of the EU as a regional integration project.”

Too true. If the UK goes, who will be next? And if the regional integration project of the EU fails, what, if anything, will replace it? These are questions that have not being asked during the referendum campaign, much less answered.

Underlying the drive for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is, I believe, a profound misconception as to what the UK is.

“England should be England,” said the former cricketer Ian Botham, adding his voice to the Leave campaign.

But England is not the UK, and the UK is not England. Neither is the EU Europe. Yet we constantly hear about what will happen if the UK ‘leaves Europe’.

This feat of geological realignment, I fear, is beyond even Mr Botham – or the flaxen-haired former mayor of London, surely a descendent of Norse invaders.

Perhaps we need some emergency geography lessons here on the sceptred isle. Shakespeare could have done with some himself, as the isle comprises more than just “this England”.

Another kind of lesson might be even more valuable: language lessons. I was asked to write the German asset management article because I speak German. This makes me part of a small and diminishing minority of British people. Language learning in the UK is in crisis, and German in particular is in danger of withering away altogether.

This is a desperate state of affairs that impoverishes the UK. And is it a coincidence that scepticism about the benefits of EU membership has risen in the UK as language learning has declined? I think not.

Assuming the polls are right and the UK does not vote to leave the EU on June 23, a useful follow-up step would be to invest in language teaching as a matter of urgency. Most educated Dutch, German and Scandinavian people can speak at least
one other European language fluently. There is no reason why the British should be any different.

If we master languages, we may also master the art of being European. That would be just as well, because that is what we are. Making an effort to speak other European languages is a courtesy to our neighbours and a gift to ourselves.

“Languages aren’t just crucial for life and work in an increasingly globalised world, they matter to the UK’s future prosperity,” says Max Herbert, head of the schools programme at the British Council.

By turning our back on language learning – or on our European partners – we impoverish above all ourselves. Let’s hope we don’t do it.

Fiona Rintoul is editorial director at Funds Europe

©2016 funds europe



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