The UK and the EU: Lessons for the GCC

Given that the European integration project has been operating as a de facto template for what the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are undertaking, it serves their interests to monitor developments with an eye to drawing lessons on how to avoid the EU’s mistakes.

In light of a series of crises faced by the European Union (EU) during the last ten years, the UK citizenry’s view of the European project has morphed from acceptance to concern, forcing Prime Minister David Cameron to commit to holding a referendum over the UK’s membership of the EU. After a set of complicated negotiations with the European Commission and the remaining members, Cameron succeeded in forging a special form of membership for his country, and it could be enough to ensure that his constituents reject the option to exit in the vote scheduled for the middle of 2016. Given that the European integration project has been operating as a de facto template for what the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are undertaking, it serves their interests to monitor developments with an eye to drawing lessons on how to avoid the EU’s mistakes.

UK citizens have two primary complaints. The first is migration: European single market rules guarantee EU citizens the right to travel and reside in any member country. The English language is the preferred second language among EU citizens, and is also the most prevalent one; moreover, London is attractive in terms of the economic opportunities it offers, especially in the financial sector. As a result, the UK has attracted large numbers of EU citizens (in excess of 3 million), much to the chagrin of UK citizens, due to the differences in customs between the migrants and the UK people, as well as the apparent unwillingness of many of the former to integrate into traditional UK society. Further, the surging inflows have created significant upward pressure on land prices and rents in London.

The second complaint concerns regulations. Despite the fact that the UK private sector has benefitted significantly from trade with the EU and capital flows, UK firms have been unhappy with the harmonized EU regulations imposed upon them as a condition of membership in the single market. The UK business environment has historically been more flexible and liberal than its EU counterparts, and that is one of the reasons for the UK’s relatively low unemployment levels, especially when compared to France, Spain, and Italy, which are suffering from high unemployment concentrated in the youth category. Proper functioning of single markets requires harmonized regulations, and so the UK economy has had to gradually surrender its positive attributes in this regard.

The EU countries had a choice on how to harmonize their regulations at the time of the Maastricht Treaty, which came at the eve of the Single Market in 1992. They could have harmonized down, meaning deregulation in the countries with highly regulated business environments as they mimic the legal setups of the more flexible economies. Alternatively, they could have harmonized up, meaning deliberalization in the liberalized economies as they emulate the highly regulated ones. Support for the latter option prevailed, primarily because bureaucracies always look for ways to expand their influence, and they avoid any policy that might limit their role in the economy, even if such propensities come at the expense of the interests of ordinary citizens. Today, the European Commission has become a symbol of unchecked, economically harmful bureaucracy that is resistant to any efforts at holding it accountable.

In the GCC, the migration issue is not a concern since the GCC economies are built upon foreign workers, which represent more than 70% of the labor force. The six countries are also culturally and linguistically highly homogenous, and there are strong cross-border tribal bonds. The Gulf peoples did not experience any analogue to the horrific wars of Europe, and thus we find that Gulf citizens welcome and trust their Gulf bretheren.

The issue of harmonizing regulations, however, could be a cause for concern in the future in the event that the GCC countries fail to plan wisely. The GCC economic model is based on economic freedom and commercial flexibility. As a result, the GCC countries occupy some of the highest positions in economic freedom indices, such as the Heritage Foundation index, and this has played an important role in attracting huge volumes of international capital, thereby creating numerous jobs in Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE. Foreign investment is currently even more significant to the economy in light of the fall in oil prices.

The central GCC institutions are yet to be endowed with significant powers, and each member state retains nearly absolute sovereignty regarding its internal affairs. This has resulted in delays to a complete roll out of the GCC single market as centralized institutions, such as the Secretariat General, are unable to hold accountable organizations and individuals that fail to comply with GCC rules. The GCC central bodies have thus far been exclusively benign, and are yet to exhibit some of the negative tendencies seen in their EU analogues.

The GCC governments have recently started to listen to the private sector’s complaints regarding the malfunctioning of the single market, because policymakers now appreciate the importance of the job opportunities that the private sectors will create in the coming period. However, policymakers must be vigilant in their oversight of any centralized bureaucracy that may be established and commissioned with the task of rehabilitating the single market and other economic integration projects. Economic freedom is central to GCC prosperity; in contrast, new bureaucracies will look to impose new laws and regulations as a means of securing their influence, and without objectively accounting for the general interest.

The US education sector offers a microcosm of these risks. College tuition fees have become astronomical, exceeding $40,000 annually, and that figure excludes textbooks, lodging, meals, and so on. A key reason has been reckless increases in administrative costs, as university bureaucracies have mutated from marginal entities that support the faculty, to behemoths that saddle professors with tasks and responsibilities unrelated to the university’s original mission, such as taking part in training workshops, completing forms, preparing reports, and so on. Bureaucracies’ steadfast commitment to expansion at all costs have resulted in the diminution of the time that professors can allocate to research and teaching.

The UK private sector is complaining about the same thing: restrictions, regulations, and procedures that stifle the creativity and dynamism necessary for the realization of profits, and the creation of jobs. With diligent planning, one hopes that the GCC countries can benefit from this experiment and avoid committing the same errors.