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The view from Davos: Cameron’s mad to talk about leaving the EU

25 January 2013

4:02 PM

25 January 2013

4:02 PM

‘Cameron’s speech on Europe is badly timed; we must stop this endless European bickering when facing such huge worldwide political challenges’.  That’s the view of Neil Selby, the London-based Director of Executive Education for the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business but who at the moment is, like me, here in Davos. ‘Let’s think instead of the links we can make with East Asia’, he tells me.

It’s very disconcerting: while in Britain most columnists and commentators seem to be congratulating Cameron on his big Europe speech, here at Davos there’s no enthusiasm. Most of the people around me think the emphasis was all wrong.

At a lunch on East vs. West; Re-Shaping the World, hosted by Clifford Chance, Stephen King, the Group Chief Economist at HSBC, insisted we should look beyond Europe. Britain needs to focus on Asia and Latin America, he told me: ‘We have become even more integrated with the rest of Europe than Germany, France or Italy; they’ve traded further afield.’ And, he added, more controversially, ‘we need a pro-immigration policy because the more those from China and India connect with the UK the more chance they will trade with us when they go back home. The vast majority wanting to come to Britain will be those with an entrepreneurial spirit. UK business should be out in Asia continuously, making those personal connections.’

I found bewilderment here that Britain just didn’t realise what a good thing it had got going in Europe. I talked to Danny Sriskandarajah, just off to Johannesburg as Secretary General of Civicus – a sort of global body for the promotion of civil society.  As an immigrant to Britain he was amazed at how successful the European project had been – 50 years of peace and a model for the rest of the world, liberalising trade and encouraging freedom of movement. And yet here was the Prime Minister signalling a drawing back. ‘If everyone starts approaching multilateral deals without a spirit of co-operation, then just like a marriage, it won’t work. What Cameron is saying will hurt Britain by showing it may be on the way out. We have the best deal possible: let’s stick with it rather than draw back.’

There’s a feeling here that we’re mad even to admit the possibility of being once again a small island nation on our own in a world of economic giants. Dawood Azami  is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader who lectures at the University of Westminster in London on international governance. Not surprisingly perhaps, he too says the future belongs to the big players – the US, China, India and Russia. If Europe wants to have a significant global role in the future it needs integration, both political and economic. It’s precisely the opposite of what Cameron says his vision of Europe is, and what he wants Britain to work for.

As far as I could tell only the Brits here at Davos felt Cameron was in with a real chance of persuading the rest of Europe to see things his way.

David Jones, CEO of Havas, the only British CEO of a French publicly-listed company, and former Cameron adviser, thought that the Prime Minister’s speech had come at the right moment: ‘It gives us clarity around a subject that has been widely debated and speculated about – we now know the road map and the timing;’ and, Jones said, Cameron’s announcement ‘set out to deliver some leadership in Europe, something that has been sorely lacking; he didn’t just ask for a better deal for Britain, but a better deal for all members.’

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