Can Britain afford to remain in its bubble?

Juergen Maier, CEO of Siemens in the UK, writes about Britain’s attitude and relationship with the European Union. Here he writes in a personal capacity and these are not the views of Siemens UK or the Siemens AG.

Can we take ourselves outside of our little isolated bubble and stay influential in the EU?

juergen-maier-siemens-webOne of the most depressing aspects of the debate about EU membership is the way that it’s almost always turned into a zero-sum game. If the UK is on the up, everyone else is down and vice versa.

There was an element of this in the Chancellor’s recent Budget statement and the messaging that was amplified thereafter. Yes, it is great and actually quite amusing to be told that Yorkshire has created more jobs than France. We should certainly be proud that our employment rate and the rate of economic growth here is currently higher than that of most EU countries.

The problem is that many people listening to the rhetoric in our EU neighbouring countries are reading the intended message very differently. When I speak to them, which I do on a daily basis, they talk of the British having an over-inflated and arrogant opinion of itself and one that is taking us further away from the influential role we have played in the EU since its inception. By coincidence, as I write this French Minister Ségolène Royal has just given an interview to BBC Newsnight in which she describes British criticism of French economic performance as, ‘condescending, spiteful and inappropriate’.

What our European neighbours are hearing is that we in the UK are at this time doing much better than all of you, thank you very much. And worse, to our continental partners we seem to want to have our EU cake and eat it.

Thus some of our politicians complain about EU immigration, without considering the millions of Brits who live and work in EU countries and future generations who want to enjoy that same opportunity. The same people tell us how terrible EU regulation is, but at the same time assume that if we leave the EU it is a given that we should be allowed to ship our products and services to EU countries, unhindered as before.

I recognise that such rhetoric is magnified by the General Election, British anti-Europeans and indeed some of the media in the UK. So this is not explicit criticism of the Chancellor – he has been clear that a successful eurozone is critical for the success of the UK economy.   But I would like to see all of our political leaders showing more leadership on the positive arguments for engagement, reform and prosperity in the EU.

We should also balance our self promotion, which I support wholeheartedly, but at the same time we should be more open to learn from our neighbours. Our export performance is still way below that of Germany and France, while our productivity is below several EU Member States and 30% below that of Germany. There is plenty we can learn and at the same time we should be prepared to help others with our wisdom and support in tougher times, as when it is their turn to be riding high we will want to join that success too.

In summary, my hope is that the UK can find a way back to where we should be – at the heart of the EU, using our success to help fix some of our shared economic challenges and at the same time further develop our trading opportunities arising from a single market. Speaking to European colleagues they recognise that a growing UK economy is good for them. I really hope we can leave hubris aside to do the same when it comes to European growth. I remember very clearly the UK that I emigrated to in 1974 was often described as the sick man of Europe in much the same way as Greece is today. And look what we have achieved since then, as part of the EU, and not despite of it.

I’m proud of that economic transformation and it is simply not the case that it is ‘us’ and ‘them’; geographically, economically and, yes, politically we are a European country and we prosper together with our neighbours, not apart.


Juergen Maier is chief executive of Siemens in the UK. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the company.