onsdag 20 december 2017

Access to markets

When I was a child, and that was a very long time ago, we used to go to Petticoat Lane market several times a year, usually on a Sunday morning; its real name is Wentworth Street. It was a train ride to the long-vanished terminal at Broad Street. The trains were ancient even then, having come into service during the First World War. The seats where covered in shiny horsehair with deep buttoned-in upholstery and above them were framed sepia photographs of places on the London and North Western Railway, such as the Lake District.

In Petticoat Lane, prices were lower, which covered the cost of the train fare. There were all sorts of things that you could not buy anywhere else: unusual vegetables such as petrushka (parsley root), an essential ingredient of chicken soup; bagels; Cohen’s Smoked Salmon; Barnett’s salt beef; Grozdinski’s bread. You could buy schmaltz herrings (Dutch style, pickled in brine), Edam, Gouda, and white cream cheese, white unsalted butter, and olives, which were a rarity elsewhere. There was a shop which sold freshwater fish such as pike and mirror carp, the latter kept live and swimming in a big glass tank above the counter.

There was lots to see and we came home with shopping bags full of interesting things to eat. This was when bread was white or Hovis, cheese meant mousetrap cheddar, fish was cod or haddock, and vegetables were potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and basic roots. A trip to Petticoat Lane was the alternative to the usual Sunday morning outing, a walk on Hampstead Heath.

Now, much of the arguments about Brexit is focussed on something called, “Access to markets”. In the normal meaning of the term, free access to markets meant that shoppers are free to go and buy what was on sale; Londoners are free to shop in Petticoat Lane market (though these days it is a very different place from what it was seventy years ago).

In Eurospeak, the meaning of “Access to markets” has been inverted. Free access in Eurospeak means that sellers are free to purvey their wares. The other side of this coin is that the withdrawal of free access, eg after Brexit, means that shoppers are restricted from being able to buy the goods on offer. Almost none of the commentators has made this obvious point, yet it is as if the people who lived in Hampstead and Kentish Town had been told by their local councils that they were not allowed to travel to Petticoat Lane and do their shopping, but must only buy from their local shops. Not only would customers have been deprived of the foods that could only be bought in Petticoat Lane; the local shops would have taken advantage of the lack of competition and jacked up their prices. This is the principle behind the EU’s Single Market.

One could envisage a situation where local shopkeepers might have tried to nobble their local councillors to enforce such a rule, but the elected councillors would have had to be extremely corrupt and they would not have been re-elected. However, this is exactly how the EU trade policy operates from Brussels. This is why the EU trade policy on Brexit will harm people and businesses inside the EU at least as much as it will cause trouble for UK manufacturers and providers of services. Consider financial services, for example. European companies employ British consultants not as an act of charity, but because they provide the service the client wants, at a favourable price. There are specific reasons why London has become a centre for financial service suppliers, and if EU clients are unable to continue to use their British consultants, they will be forced to pay more for a worse service, not to mention the cost and trouble of the disruption, which will extend to a loss of knowledge of the clients’ business, built up over many years.

Despite the obviousness of all these, writers, and expert ones at that, persist in referring to “Access to markets” exclusively from the producers’ perspective.

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