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Nothing Much Changes - Written on 23 November 2006

November 11, 2014 3:33 PM
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

What is so new about this 'New Europe' anyway? From Prague to Hamburg via Vienna and Marseille.

Eastern workers destroying our jobs, opportunities for British businesses, Euro or a Pound? Brussels interference, EU pay out, economic union, political independence …. Pros and cons of 'new' Europe.

George Smid and Nick Clegg

Liberal Democrats and Europeans - George Smid and Nick Clegg MP

Every time I hear an argument about the perils of more and more integrated Europe, I recall the memory of my grandfather. Born in a small village near Prague (with the only claim to fame that Martina Navratilova was also born there) he was sent off to Vienna at the age of 14 to do his apprenticeship. Three years later he became a 'journeyman' travelling from a town to a town looking for a job. The work of craftsmen (he was a cabinet maker) was governed by the Guilds. In each new town, you walked to your respective guild, asked if any master needed a tradesman. If there was a vacancy in the workshop, you were taken on. Then you either married the boss's daughter or walked on when the work finished. Looking for the boss's daughters, my grandfather walked to Marseille, retrained as a shipwright and did a coastal hopping tour to Hamburg. From there he walked down the Elbe to the Vltava River, Prague and back home, where he married the girl next door. The First World War followed, multinational monarchy dissolved and the nation state was born. Then the Second World War and an iron curtain across Europe. And now we are trying to bring the nation state barriers down, often with great 'angst'.

Think about it: my grandfather walked through what are now five countries (free labour movement) and he presented his Guild Certificate to obtain a job (recognition of qualification). But more importantly - this was an established way of doing things. I believe that if you mentioned a 'Polish plumber' working in France, he would not see it as unusual at all. And this is bringing me to the plight of SME's in this 'new' Europe. My grandfather did not travel because there were treaties, commissions and political agenda. He travelled to Vienna to obtain a better qualification, to learn German, and then he travelled because he was looking for opportunities. He did not have a problem with a visa, working permit or guest workers admission. And wherever he went he was accepted for what he was. If this 'new' Europe is to succeed even for SMEs, that is what we need: acceptance. We need the Greek authorities to accept our UK VAT registration, we need UK authorities to accept Polish National Insurance, and we need a bank to accept accounts in the currencies of Europe. (Last year I paid a Euro cheque into my Euro account in the local HSBC bank. To deal with it, the bank closed all the counters, the cashiers being drafted in for help. By the time I left the bank there was a queue down the High Street).

The strength of SMEs is flexibility, fast response, personal vision and drive. If this advantage is eliminated by Euro bureaucracies, we cannot become 'European'. We need to be able to set up shop 'as we go'. My experience in Vienna was anything but: to register a business one needed a 'Melde Zettle' (residence permit), to get a Melde Zettle, one needed a certificate of registration. Trade missions, embassy support, country reports are not that much use. The result is that only a very small proportion of SMEs operate in at least one other country. For that to change we need an environment where an SME Entrepreneur can hit the ground running. SMEs do not have the time, the resources and the luxury of 'the long view'. SME's need things working: We need Europe wide insurance. We need bilingual documents (say English PLUS one), we need recognition of certificates. The SME's are not interested in 'universalisms'. We do not need to fight over EU Norms defining 'a sausage'. We need flexibility. We do not need an all-embracing constitution. We need acceptance of our local certificates. The Europe of today has become too high brow for us. We need down to earth, simply understood solutions. Manuals and norms weighing tonnes are no use to us.

So I could go on what SMEs need. But do I need to? My grandfather's experience would indicate that to look at what we once had is probably a good starting point. And if there is a political group looking for a pan European slogan to achieve pan European integration, than my suggestion would be: Acceptance, Acceptance and Acceptance.

J. George Smid is a Managing Director if ISA UK Ltd. facilitating cross-country projects, Liberal Democrat candidate in the Euro Election and Chair of Corby Liberal Democrats.