Frontiers of fashion


We overestimate the importance of short-term political change, and underestimate the significance of deep-seated societal difference.

Menton, Alpes-Maritimes

Glad you’re not here; most of France seems to be, but crowded into a strip that extends no more than a hundred metres from the sea.

Dined last night in the best restaurant in the area, which oddly enough is in Italy, less than a kilometre across the border. But you notice the difference as soon as you cross. It is not just that the prices are in lire, and the waters say buona sera. The menu has a different structure, the wine list is quite different, and the coffee cups are half the size of those on the French border (which are in turn half the size of those in London). And the clientele is different too. Indeed, that is why the best local restaurant is in Italy. Young Italian professionals will pay for Michelin-starred cooking, but French retraitées will not.

Do you remember how the coming of Europe’s single market in 1992 was supposed to blur or remove all these differences? I dined in that same restaurant on 31 December 1991. I had booked well in advance, relishing the symbolic gesture. We could walk back to France, careless of border formalities, citizens of the new Europe.

Sadly, it was not so. The functionaires were still there, and are still there today. On one side of the border, they wear the crisp peacock uniforms that instantly identify servants of the Italian state. On the other, bored CRS men sit in a glass booth, playing cards. Soon, it is said, Italy will become a full participant in the Schengen agreement, and border officials will at last disappear. I suspect the wine list at Bair Benjamin will remain unchanged.

It is easy now to forget the hype which surrounded 1992 and the single market. Two out of five UK firms would be out of business as a result, Sir John Harvey-Jones warned us. Alan Sugar looked forward to putting all his European computers in the same boxes, presumably looking forward to the day, well beyond 1992, when all Europeans used the same plugs and read instruction books in the same language. Trans-European firms would become the norm. But who can now remember what was said at the endless conferences which were held to prepare business for its new European challenge?

Just as people in business seem to veer from fad to fashion in business concepts, so they become fixated by fashionable events. In the late 1980s, that was the coming of the single market. Today the same role is played by talk of the business implications of EMU, the millenium bomb, and the internet. Those who went to a business seminar on 1992 every day in 1989 could now find one on the year 2000 on every day in 1997. I expect that the same people are going.

And they may have good reasons for doing so. Being on top of the latest fad is a certain way of gaining attention from the senior management which has espoused it. There is also a market for being an expert on a future event which is going to have a profound effect on business, especially when no one quite understands why it is going to have that effect or exactly what it will be. How many large companies are there without at least one person who has carved a comfortable niche for himself or herself as the person who knows all about 1992, EMU, the millenium bomb, or the internet?

Which is not to say that these things are of no importance. The 1992 programme did have significant effects on European business. It greatly simplified the formalities associated with selling goods across European frontiers, and made substantial progress towards removing regulatory barriers to trade between states in some sectors. But it was not, and was never likely to have been, the massive discontinuity in business experience which some suggested was in prospect.

And that is the lesson for us to ponder, as we sit on the Franco-Italian border drinking our kir, or our prosecco, depending on which side of the border it is we sit. We are inclined greatly to exaggerate the short-run influence of political events on economic and business life, and greatly to under-estimate the long-run influence of political events on economic and business life. That Franco-Italian border illustrates the issue well.

The difference between France and Italy remains very visible, whatever happens at the frontier. It is a difference which affects business life in many ways. But it is a difference which is gradually being eroded. After all, that frontier is a very artificial one. It was drawn in 1860. Its position was part of a political deal between Piedmont and France in which the latter gained territory in return for support of the former’s Austrian war, and the line might more logically have been set fifty miles to the west. The border was drawn through a group of people for whom Paris and Rome were equally far away and equally irrelevant to their lives; and if someone from either city had arrived among them, the local population would not have understood what they were saying.

But today, everyone on one side of that arbitrary line speaks French and everyone on the other side Italian. Within a few decades, reinforced by different education systems, different fiscal systems, one finding its dominant social and economic influences to the east, the other to the west, the two sides of the border acquired characters as distinct as those we see today – and characters that will outlast changes in these fiscal systems and economic influences. In understanding how the process of economic integration does take place, there is enough to reflect on to justify a second glass of kir or prosecco.

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