The Olympic medal table has received intense attention from Britain over the last few weeks. I’m sure this was the case across Europe too – with half of the top ten places in the table awarded to European countries; as Simon Kuper in the FT commented ‘European nations are still Olympic powerhouses’.
One can’t help but notice though that the Olympic balance of power is shifting. The dominance of the old Olympic powers is being challenged by the emerging powers of Asia and Latin America.
This shift seems to echo what is happening in another international league table that warrants attention: the ranking of countries by GDP. This table reminds us that the EU faces a monumental competitiveness challenge: a historic shift of global economic power from North to South and from West to East.
Both league tables are determined by competitiveness – of athletes; of economies. Great Britain was not at all competitive at the Atlanta Games in 1996, where we picked up just a single Gold. Since then, we have put a lot of effort into regaining our competitiveness. It has been a dazzling success.
Drawing economic lessons from the way in which we regained athletic competitiveness might be going a bit far, but there are certainly interesting analogies to be drawn.
To propel us up the medal standings, our athletes needed to be as quick and agile as possible. Jessica Ennis wouldn’t have won the heptathlon if she had had to jump over higher hurdles, thrown heavier shot-puts and run the 800m in the outside lane while her competitors ran round the inside. The Brownlee brothers wouldn’t have led the Triathlon if they had had to fill out a pile of forms after the starting gun before jumping into the Serpentine; Anna Watkins and Catherine Grainger wouldn’t have won the Double Sculls Gold if they had been made to wear life vests.
Similarly, our companies won’t be as successful as they have the potential to be if they are encumbered with costly EU regulation and lengthy red-tape. Other companies in the global market place are winning the race for contracts because they do not suffer from such disadvantages. It costs four times as much to open a business in the EU than it does in the US. It costs even less to open one in the China and South East Asia. We are shooting ourselves in the foot.
We need to tackle this head on, reducing the regulatory burden and supporting businesses so they can help stimulate economic activity. The British government introduced a ‘one in – one out’ policy whereby new regulation can only be introduced if a current one is abolished. I challenge the EU to follow suit.
But success is not just about removing the measures that disadvantage us; it is about taking measures to give us a competitive advantage. On the cycling track we were accused by some of unfairly using ‘magic wheels’ and ‘super suits’. But Dave Brailsford, the performance director of British cycling, put it well when he said that the success of his team of Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and Co. was down to the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. Part of this was using the best, most innovative technology and training regimes.
This is precisely what we should be doing to drive economic competitiveness. Europe has a strong technological base. Jason Kenny’s ‘magic wheels’ were invented and produced in France! We must foster innovation – not just in industry and commerce but in government too. We should improve the provision of government services online, and simplify the processes of opening businesses in the EU.
When new, faster athletes take part in your race, you will not win by maintaining your original speed. Challenges to competitiveness cannot be overcome by continuing to do what you have always done. A change of approach is needed. Our companies, our economies, are being challenged. If we want to maintain our economic power in this world, we must adapt, we must change our approach, we must make ourselves quicker and more agile and give ourselves the best possible chance of competing in a race that is faster than it used to be.