Guest blog by Alison Thorpe, Chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Sweden
Yesterday, a friend here in Sweden ordered a pram on-line. The best price was from a French company. The site (albeit in French only) helpfully gave a price for delivery to Sweden. But it proved impossible to register as a customer outside France. She put “Sweden” in the comment box and pressed send. And the order was confirmed, to be delivered to “Stockholm, France”. A few emails later, the situation was resolved, and the company was incredibly helpful. But I suspect that many other potential customers may well have given up!
Nevertheless, this led me to think about how Europe has become one big marketplace. In fact, this week the Single European Market celebrates its 20th anniversary. Historically speaking, 20 years is nothing more than a blink of an eye. But for most of us it’s still quite a long time. 20 years ago it was 1992. So how different did things look then?
For a start, mobile phones looked like bricks. In fact how many of us had one? It was 1997 before I took the plunge, and I remember wondering how I would ever send an SMS! Nor was Internet the ubiquitous thing it is today. Remember the excitement of hearing the dial-up modem squeal as it slowly-slowly- ever-so-slowly connected, while you waited impatiently to see if you had received any messages? (Or was that just me?)
Today things have moved on, and many of the day-to-day benefits we take for granted today are in no small part a consequence of the creation of the Single Market. It encompasses 500 million people, with 21 million companies, generating GBP 11 trillion of economic activity. The UK, like Sweden, sees the EU as its major trading partner, with about half of our exports going to EU countries. Since 1992, the UK’s bilateral trade with Sweden alone has gone up 187%. We estimate that as many as 3.5 million jobs in the UK exist thanks to the Single Market, which has also brought plenty of tangible benefits to Mr. Smith and Mrs. Svensson: cheaper mobile communications, more consumer choice over gas, water or electricity providers, safer medicines, visa-free travel…. to name but a few.
But we can do more. A Dutch report suggests that a truly free market in services could increase current trade by a ratio of 3 to 5. And the European Policy Centre estimates that developing the Digital Single Market by 2020 could add another 4% to the EU’s GDP. By way of example, e-commerce in 2010 in Europe was worth EUR 175bn, and it is growing fast. Yet many of us still only shop on-line within national borders. Sometimes this is because we choose to do so, but other times it is because it can be difficult to do otherwise, unless you’re as dedicated as my pram-buying friend!
Cross-border trade in prams may not be the bedrock of the EU economy but, added to the vast range of other goods and services that circulate within our single market, every little helps. In today’s difficult economic climate, we need to look at all the options available to increase Europe’s prosperity. And we need to ensure the EU remains – and becomes even more – competitive in the global economy. The EU institutions, individual governments, businesses, civil society – we can all do something….whether we’re in Enköping, Edinburgh, Evian or Essen.
Who knows – maybe next time my friend can even order her pram, on-line, via her smartphone, finding the best possible price, without feeling the need to bang her head against the wall!