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View from Brussels: Could France seize UK tech business?

Brexit spells opportunity for the UK’s EU rivals. France in particular, under its dynamic young new president, is rolling out the mat to tech entrepreneurs.

I am one of that (I suspect) small minority of people who are both rather fond of Trump and sceptical of Brexit. I understand all the reasons why people voted for Brexit, and I have explored them in posts and articles past.

People’s lack of control over their lives, immigration and stressful living, resentment at the London elites, continuing inequalities and then, among for instance engineering intellectuals, a sense that Britain is losing control of its economy – selling out its manufacturing industry - due to European Union-driven globalisation.

There’s also the question of the UK’s perennial low productivity. 

Then there are the many people who read the Daily Mail, which blames the EU rather than the UK’s own elites – so the EU was the patsy. Because after all, don’t some of the more prosperous northern members of Europe maintain high productivity and control of their economy while staying inside the EU?

It’s not that the EU is a perfect construction by any means, but it’s like a poker game and to leave the table means that you lose. There is a French expression: Les absents ont toujours tort. Those who are not there are always wrong. Who cannot be sure now that the new EU is not going to stack the rules against Britain in the same way that the rules were stacked against the country in the 1960s when Britain stayed out by choice and then, realising its mistake, found its application rejected by President de Gaulle twice as France didn’t want a competition for the political leadership of Europe?

When it became apparent that Britain was going to join after de Gaulle’s passing, France finalised the Common Agricultural Policy with great rapidity so that its farmers would gain maximum benefit while countries with an agricultural structure like Britain’s would lose out, as a result of which Britain the paid highest aggregate price to be part of what was then called the European Economic Community.

Judging by the output of French journalists, the French political class, of all member nations, seems the most glad to see the British go this time round and you have to wonder why.  Maybe it is useful to ask sometimes what your biggest rivals wish for you and do the precise opposite. In other words, shouldn’t the British have been asking themselves what the French wanted for the British and then done the exact opposite – stay inside the EU? That is something those patriotic Brexiteers with their Agincourt fantasies never told you.

The general paralysis of the British government has been covered elsewhere but what has caught my eye was the intriguing FT article that talked about France’s potential to seize European science and technology business from the British when they leave. France’s president Emmanuel Macron is a pretty competitive kind of guy and seems set on reasserting France as the political-cultural-economic lodestar for the rest of Europe. And the article gives a list of the things he is trying to do. He recently sought to exploit Trump’s climate scepticism by making a play for American climate scientists under the slogan ”Make the planet great again”. (A teasing reference to the American president’s campaign slogan to “make America great again”)

The UK has seen a decline in inward investment from IT and software companies by a tenth since the Brexit vote but still benefits from deeper resources of venture capital funding and there is a broader range of talent in the tech sector. Then there is the English language, the language of international technology, which the French are resistant to. But France can offer excellent healthcare and transport and quality of life, and is slashing its red tape and lowering taxes, hoping to benefit from the uncertainty about immigration rules that currently handicap the British technology economy.

Macron has also said that he wants France to be a nation of innovation start-ups at a conference where he introduced a fast track visa for international technology entrepreneurs.

I don’t know if this bit of tea-leaf-reading is relevant, but in a recent EU report on creative and cultural cities in the EU, Paris was number one and London didn’t even appear in the top rankings; instead smaller European cities were emphasised, coming a long way after Paris. One shouldn’t take these reports too seriously, except perhaps as an indicator of who wants to please whom at the European Commission. But you also sometimes wonder if these reports don’t become self-fulfilling. London has topped all European rankings of coolness and heft for a long while, and been a magnet for Europe’s young, so this represents a kind dethronement – surely deliberate.

Meanwhile the European Parliament press spokesman has started blogging in French while French journalists in Brussels crow, surely prematurely, over the return of French and the decline of English in institutions.  I don’t think it’s going to happen yet, but you can be sure that the question of language, which is so important for informal exercise of power, is one bone the French won’t let go of.

That said, the French have had ambitions for years. Ten years ago the then president Jacques Chirac talked about fighting France’s reputation as a museum, beautiful but sterile, by unveiling a series of technology projects including a state-funded search engine to rival Google. Remember Quaero? I thought not. On the other hand some French centrally promoted projects have flourished, for instance Airbus and the TGV. And France’s level of high tech exports is much higher than Britain’s.

Brexit might have seemed like a good idea about taking back control. But sovereignty means many things. The freedom that the Brexiteers emphasise is the classic negative freedom, the freedom from interference by others: this idea that Britain can go its own way. But what is so great about the freedom of the unemployed or the freelancer? Sometimes, it just means the freedom of the phone that doesn’t ring.

Sometimes more power is accrued by being part of a larger integrated unit, and part of the decision-making process of that greater unit, rather than being outside that unit, admittedly not having to live by that club’s rules, but also subjected to that club’s decisions and whims. To be part of a greater whole means a loss of sovereignty but an increase of capacity; it is known as positive freedom and sometimes it is the better freedom of the two.

Especially if your clout inside that greater unit is disproportionately large. Even though the UK joined the EU 15 years late (in those days it was called the EEC, as said), in 1973, I reckon that, by the early 2000s, the Commission was running along a definite free-market British-friendly agenda, working in the English language, and British modes of thought were more dominant than those of any other nations, possibly barring Germany. It took decades to reach that pole position and Britain gave it away in one vote.

Britain has retreated from that position and it is the Brexiteers’ fault.

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