Global Britain or Little Britain?

The strength of Britain’s position in the world after leaving the EU provides another source of division between ‘europhiles’ and ‘’eurosceptics’. Similar questions are raised concerning the EU’s own position in the world.

Ex(?) Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, told Britain to get used to the fact that it was a small country which no longer had much influence in the world. The Economist (TE) emphasised his point in an article in the 7th February edition. It offers high praise for the design of the British electric plug but points out that the design has not been adopted globally despite its obvious superiority to the more frequent two-pin varieties used, for example, in the USA. They fear that Britain does not have the clout to get its standards adopted:

For such influence, an alchemy of regulatory clout and market power that Britain simply does not possess is required. But it is a blend that the EU has learned to master.”

Any country wishing to sell electrical items into the Continental market must make them conform to the appropriate standard or they wouldn’t be of much use to consumers. Despite that they also needed to comply with BS1363 for their products to penetrate the UK market, or rather its sockets; that wont change after the Transition from the Single Market.

EuroplugCENELEC (Comité Européen de Normalisation Électrotechnique) includes EU and EFTA members plus three other countries that wish or wished to join the EU, a grand total of 37 nations. Not all of them use the Europlug (that includes Ireland – sorry Leo). UK-compatible sockets have a child-proof shutter opened by the earth pin. The Europlug has no fuse: the hefty 3-pin plug must have a 3, 5 or 13 amp fuse to protect from a frayed power cord. For higher-power devices Germany and some other countries use a Type F plug/socket which have earth connections and now incorporate a way of accommodating the French-style Type E earth. In Italy you might find a Type L outlet and in Switzerland, a Type J plug.

The UK used to have different-sized (round pin) plugs and sockets for different power demands—a table lamp had a smaller set than an electric heater. This was rationalised soon after the second world war, by which time Australia had tidied up its own muddle by drawing on US standards. There are more than a dozen different types of mains plugs across world markets and even the areas compatible with the “euro” style include several of them (dark blue in the map below).

Plug standards

We would respond that Britain may have lost such clout and power as a result of spending nearly half a century subjected to EU dominance. And we question whether the EU has mastered marketing, though we don’t doubt that its “regulatory clout” is significant (the influence of the GDPR is a potent example of that).

The Economist continues its Europhile story with “The EU, no superpower in the traditional sense…” implying that its regulatory influence changes the world in a way the UK cannot match; even if this were true it isn’t necessarily a good thing, from GDPR to GM foods it can strangle its opportunities to lead technological advance.

TE can’t resist taking swipes at Boris and Brexit to conclude that: “Britain can try to go it alone in its own regulatory sphere, but it will probably prove as popular as its three-pronged plugs.”

Having satisfied itself that the UK lacks market-influencing clout in the world TE at least goes on to remind itself that “being only a regulatory superpower has limits… When it comes to soft power and tweaking plug design, the EU reigns. In terms of hard power…” the EU is like “a man with a fork in a world of soup”.

And this is risky: “Even where Brussels does run the show, the upside is not obvious. Brussels increasingly sets the rules for the internet. But it is still large American companies that make the money…”. The EU’s “share of the global economy is likely to fall in the coming decades. As it shrinks, so does the incentive to follow Brussels’ diktats.”

SuperpowerWe must assume that, despite such damp criticism, the EU will not deviate from its self-imposed raison d’etre. One reason, obvious to us if not to them, is that while bureaucrats have the ability to impose policies and regulations on their members and more widely, they do not have the ability, or the power, to produce beneficial economic outcomes. These are only likely to come from within nation states, supported by (preferably democratic) governments but relying on commercial enterprises to produce growth. The malign effect of regulatory superpowerdom is more likely to account for the low growth, high youth unemployment and economic sterility that persist in the EU.


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