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The Baltic Exchange, sovereignty, Europe and beyond

The Baltic Exchange, sovereignty, Europe and beyond
How do you feel about the proposed link between London’s Baltic Exchange and that of Singapore? It makes a lot of sense, you might think, in this global village that is international shipping, with the locus of activity inexorably moving eastwards.

And is it such a big deal, with the London exchange just a shadow of its former physical self, a mere purveyor of indices and not the market which once so effectively brought ships and cargoes into close proximity?

It is a great idea, shareholders will probably think, while those involved in virtually every sector of shipping, other than dry bulk, will remain unmoved. Others perhaps, who might recall the Baltic in its heyday, will regret the passing of another British maritime institution. They may, however, relate very positively to the maritime ambitions of that small and energetic republic and conclude that this is yet another step in its challenge to more traditional shipping centres, in which it is largely succeeding. Singapore is growing maritime infrastructure, with a strong belief that if the right climate can be provided, any elements of this most moveable industry will be attracted to its manifold and magnetic facilities. In so many respects, it is an example to us all and one that other governments and centres like the City of London will ignore at their peril.

You can regret the submersion of once important institutions in foreign organisations from a sort of historic perspective, almost as a “loss of sovereignty”. It was interesting that the fate of the Baltic actually emerged in such a context during a recent Maritime Foundation discussion in London on the forthcoming EU referendum and the UK’s maritime capabilities in terms of fishing, shipping and security.

And indeed, this issue of sovereignty, of being in control of national fortunes and fates, has been central to the arguments that have been raging around this seemingly endless and often bad-tempered European debate. The surrender of national sovereignty over all sorts of issues, once the sole prerogative of individual governments, has been a main thrust of the European “project”, although until quite recently it has been largely concealed by those we have learned to describe as the “elites”.

The trouble is that the notion of sovereignty, in its widest context, is hard-wired into the mental make-up of most human beings, even though they may not call it by such a term. It is about being in control, the exercise of freedom, choice and democracy, which, as an idea, is as old as ancient Athens. It is no mystery that the surrender of such freedoms has made the EU exceedingly unappealing to many and is one of the main planks of the “Brexit” campaign.

The convinced Eurocrat and their Europhile supporters alike can see all the utilitarian advantages of the 28 member states operating as one, conveying scale benefits, projecting regional power and economic convenience. To them, it is a “no-brainer”, in the same way that the accountants will unreservedly commend mergers and takeovers. Those opposing the project are dismissed as “Little Englanders”, a phrase which has entered the global vocabulary.

But there is no accounting for human beings, traditionally organised into families, villages, town and cities, supporters of local football teams, with regional preferences shining through, and, of course nation states. Those who attempt to diminish these local loyalties by the imposition of directives (an unfortunate word) and external controls rarely will find popular approval for their aggregation of power.

History informs us that whole empires have fallen on account of their inability to recognise the human response to their exercise of power. The “Boston Tea Party” is a pleasing analogy. When a member of the Brussels elite pronounces that the only solution to a crisis is “more Europe”, there are no cheering crowds in the street or wild acclamation; rather a sinking of hearts and a stiffening of the opposition to such policies. We might have come a long way from St. Mary Axe and the Baltic Exchange, but as Singapore itself has shown us over the years, size and scale are not the only criteria and sovereignty should never be easily dismissed. I have no strong feelings about the Baltic. The other matter is something else.