Dunkirk revisited?

According to several commentators, we stand in a much more isolated Britain this week than last. The British Prime Minister’s decision to retreat from the continent and the new treaty arrangements being discussed over the Channel will certainly have a huge impact on the way the UK interacts with its neighbours, but the winners and losers of these new arrangements have yet to emerge.

David Cameron announced that he could not agree to the other EU members’ proposals as they would have harmed Britain’s financial service industry in the City of London which accounts for approximately 9% of the country’s GDP. It is of course possible that London will benefit from the additional transaction taxes that will now be placed on banks based in the Eurozone, stealing business from Paris and Frankfurt. But at the same time it would be naïve to think that the EU legislation drafters will allow the thousands of European banks now stationed in the UK to escape the tax. What’s more, the principle of international, cross-border trade upon which the City was built on centuries ago will slowly be eroded away, leaving London looking more like a everyday national capital than the global financial centre the 20th century has seen it become.

The reasons for the veto, as many commentators have discussed, are much more political than economic. It was a move designed to harmonise party politics and to defend British sovereignty from attack from Brussels bureaucrats rather than to make a step towards fixing the ills of global capitalism. But what does it mean for us, the linguists who call Britain home?

It is difficult to see trade between Britain and the EU not faltering as a direct result of this decision. A deep mistrust of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism, the flames of which have been fanned by the French President, combined with the British refusal for teamwork will be sure to affect the trade decisions of EU states. Sarkozy’s recent comments about there now being ‘two Europes’, brings our relationship with the rest of the continent over the next decade into sharp focus. It could be then that the traditional language choices of French, German, Italian and Spanish become less and less in-demand in Britain 2020.

Instead, as teams from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills tour the globe looking for new opportunities for British suppliers, perhaps linguists should follow them. Vince Cable paid a recent visit to Vietnam and South East Asia with a team of advisors hoping to drum up business in these nascent economies. Brazil and Latin American remain on his hit list and of course the bright lights of China are there too. With Britain conducting more trade with Ireland than it does with any one of the BRIC countries or these developing economies with huge potential, perhaps this kick back from the European Union will spur British business to look further afield to more fertile markets and to re-establish the global supply chain that once stretched from our somewhat rainy islands in the North Atlantic to towns, cities and metropolises around the world.

In the long term this realignment of international economic relations was always going to be necessary, and it remains so despite the EU’s actions. Maybe Britain’s requirement to realign its trade priorities more urgently than the Eurozone now that it has found itself in this isolation, will put it in pole position and get us trading with these further flung corners of the world more quickly than our continental cousins.