Monday, July 16, 2007

Giving Up Their Francs and Marks - but Not Their Phone Companies

I have been in Europe three times over the past year for business, including trips to Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Switzerland. And not too long ago, I visited a sibling in Ireland. On all these trips I was astonished at the progress being made by the historical experiment called the European Union. Although not all countries are fully on board with this experiment, its impact has been profound.

I am amazed that the French gave up their beloved francs, and the Germans their rock-solid marks, in favor of a highly uncertain new currency called the Euro. England has not yet given up its pounds, but many merchants already accept Euros, which are becoming a second currency there.

In addition to the common currency, the common labor market has had a very tangible impact: when you check in at a hotel or eat at a restaurant you are likely to be greeted by someone from another country. (It also means that the quality of food served has risen significantly, on average, in the countries I have visited.) But what has impressed me most is the EU's far-sighted "equalization" scheme.

Under this scheme, the richer countries contribute money to a pot that is then allocated to the poorer countries. This scheme has funded major infrastructure projects in the poorer countries such as Ireland and Spain (which have prospered hugely over the last decade) and Portugal (which is still poor but making progress).

After a long stagnation, these countries are building and improving roads and bridges and public places. The improved infrastructure, combined with the freer movement of talent, goods, and capital, have resulted in rapid growth in many of the poorer countries.

They have also unlocked hidden sources of growth in the richer countries, which can now deploy their capital and labor more efficiently and have a larger market for their goods. As a result, they are becoming far more cosmopolitan, and opportunities for younger people have expanded dramatically.

While change always has its costs, you can feel the vibrancy in the air in the countries I have been to recently, and the benefits seem to far outweigh the problems.

But regulation of the internet and cell phones is one glaring failure in Europe. Public access to the internet in the UK and Europe remains very expensive – I have had to pay between $20 and $40 per day in hotels in London and Portugal recently, which is a huge extra cost of doing business there. And I was effectively unable to do my normal business when staying with a friend in Paris, because the modem system at her home was incompatible with my computer.

And don’t get me started on cell phones. I recently purchased a plan here in the US that gives me 1,000 minutes of calling anywhere in the US for just $39. By contrast, it often costs $2 per MINUTE to call across country boundaries within Europe. EU regulators have pledged to cut this in half, but that would still mean my 1,000 minutes could cost me up to $1,000 per month!

For developing countries, telecommunications is a core part of their infrastructure. Recognizing this, many developing countries are taking steps to ensure that access to the internet and cell phones is freely available and relatively inexpensive. That is one area where they are well ahead of the new Europe.