By Larry Elliot
The age of globalisation began on the day the Berlin Wall came down. From that moment in 1989, the trends evident in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s accelerated: the free movement of capital, people and goods; trickle-down economics; a much diminished role for nation states; and a belief that market forces, now unleashed, were unstoppable.
There has been push back against globalisation over the years. The violent protests seen in Seattle during the World Trade Organisation meeting in December 1999 were the first sign that not everyone saw the move towards untrammelled freedom in a positive light. One conclusion from the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 was that it was not only trade and financial markets that had gone global. The collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers seven years later put paid to the idea that the best thing governments could do when confronted with the power of global capital was to get out of the way and let the banks supervise themselves. Now we have Britain’s rejection of the EU.
This was more than a protest against the career opportunities that never knock and the affordable homes that never get built. It was a protest
against the economic model that has been in place for the past three decades. To be sure, not all Britain’s problems are the result of its EU membership. It is not theEuropean commission’s fault that productivity is so weak or that the trains don’t run on time. The deep-seated
failings that were there when Britain voted in the referendum last Thursday were still there when the country woke up to the result on Friday.
Evidence of just how unbalanced the economy is will be provided when the latest figures for Britain’s current account are released later this week. These show whether the country’s trade and investment income are in the black or the red. At the last count, in the final three months of 2015, the UK was running a record peacetime deficit of 7% of GDP.
In another sense, however, the EU is culpable. In the shiny new world created when former communist countries were integrated into the global model, Europe was supposed to be big and powerful enough to protect its citizens against the worst excesses of the market. Nation states had previously been the guarantor of full employment and welfare. The controls they imposed on the free movement of capital and people ensured that trade unions could bargain for higher pay without the threat of work being off-shored, or cheaper labour being brought into the country. In the age of globalisation, the idea was that a more integrated Europe would collectively serve as the bulwark that nation states could no longer provide. Britain, France, Germany or Italy could not individually resist the power of trans-national capital, but the EU potentially could. The way forward was clear. Move on from a single market to a single currency, a single banking system, a single budget and eventually a single political entity.
That dream is now over. As Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform thinktank put it: “Brexit is a momentous event in the history of Europe and from now on the narrative will be one of disintegration not integration.”
The reason is obvious. Europe has failed to fulfil the historic role allocated to it. Jobs, living standards and welfare states were all better protected in the heyday of nation states in the 1950s and 1960s than they have been in the age of globalisation. Unemployment across the eurozone is more than 10%. Italy’s economy is barely any bigger now than it was when the euro was created. Greece’s economy has shrunk by almost a third. Austerity has eroded welfare provision. Labour market protections have been stripped away.
By Larry Elliot