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A call to Britain: get real and move to the Pacific

16 Feb

The momentous events of last December have permanently changed the UK’s relationship with Europe. To the average Europhile, this is something to be lamented and mourned, the moment Britain became a so-called pygmy on the world stage.

To others, David Cameron’s stand will have benefits far greater than appeasing his own Eurosceptic MPs. It will allow the UK to open its eyes to the rest of the world, and the enormous trading opportunities there.

Here is a question. If you had a business, would you rather sell to the penny-pinching customer with the uncertain future, or the flash kids with money to burn?

Britain finds itself in such a quandary right now. We have been members of the European project for nearly forty years, and our economy has merged with the Continent’s to such extent that our largest trading partners are across the Channel.

The issue though is that the European economy is crumbling. The rest of the world is leaving Europe far behind, a situation that is highly likely to worsen given the EU’s inability to sort out its financial problems.

The EU’s economic growth in 2010 was 1.8%. In contrast, the developing countries of East Asia – excluding Japan – are expected to have grown by a huge 8.2% in 2011, according to the World Bank. India’s growth has slowed, but to a respectable 7%, well above France’s forecasted 1.6% for last year.

By focusing mainly on Europe, the UK’s economy is ignoring the far bigger picture.

When will Britain see the Asian lights? (Photo from here)

The Asia Pacific (APAC) region in particular represents an enormous opportunity for anyone that is willing to work there. This is not new: a nineteenth century British trade delegation to China once mused that if the Chinese added one inch to their shirt-sleeves, ‘the textile mills of Lancashire would be busy for the next 100 years’.

China is an economic sensation. It has quadrupled in size over the last few decades to be the world’s second largest economy, and is projected by many to overtake the US into number one spot sometime over the next ten years. There are untold opportunities for British trade with the country, especially given Beijing’s current push to develop its internal markets: the country is expected to import over $8 trillion worth of goods in the next 5 years alone.

Yet APAC is far more than just China. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand are just some of the countries that are developing fast and ripe to do business with.

The UK needs to start taking APAC far more seriously. There is huge admiration for the UK in Asia. Union Jacks adorn the latest fashions; British music and films are everywhere; English is the lingua franca for many. But we are just not capitalising on it: trade with APAC remains far smaller than with Europe or North America.

Where are the small Manchester companies roaming the Jakarta trade shows? Where are the Birmingham businesspeople looking for deals in Taiwan? Why don’t we see Shoreditch software entrepreneurs selling in Malaysia?

The British pavilion at the recent Shanghai expo is a telling reflection in the UK’s commercial relationship with Asia. A mesmerizing cube composed of 60,000 perspex rods, it was widely praised as the main architectural marvel of the six-month event. But there was nothing in it: a triumph of style over substance.

To be fair to David Cameron, he understands the need for more global trade. He has proudly pointed out that since his high-profile visits, British UK’s bilateral trade with India is up by 20% in the last year and exports to China are up 40%. In addition, embassies and high commissions are being made to provide more commercial support to UK enterprises.

Yet it is not enough. The US is taking an active lead in Asia, as it understand that the 21st century will belong to Asia. President Obama has recently announced that America will be signing up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a group of liberal-minded countries in the region which has the potential to be the world’s largest trade block.

(Although this grouping does not include China, this is not necessarily a bad thing: it does, after all, cement liberal trade as the dominant economic model for most of the region.)

One possible way for the UK to tap into the APAC growth story outside of China is by following the US lead and joining the TPP. The organisation’s agreement makes provision for its expansion to include any state that meets its liberal economic criteria, which the UK plainly does.

With the TPP having core British allies within its actual or provisional members – the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei – and strong relations with others – like Malaysia and Japan – there is no obvious impediment to the UK joining, no Charles de Gaulle waiting to block our accession.

The only real barriers are the legal limits imposed by the EU, and our emotional ties to our nearest neighbours. The Europhile fear of Britain being blockaded by Europe if we looked elsewhere for trade has no foundation given the amount they export to us.

It will take great political courage to move Britain into the unknown and realign itself to be more world-focused. The Prime Minister though should remember that many companies have successfully reinvented themselves to take advantage of exciting and prosperous new markets. Nintendo – one of the world’s largest video game companies – used to make playing cards. Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone maker, started life as a paper manufacturer. It can be done.

The UK should move further onto the world stage. But the country needs room to manoeuvre, to focus its interests on the parts of the world that are growing, and not stagnating.

The only way we can do that is if we take the plunge and realise that Europe is the past, and Asia the future.

Why the West finds it hard to invest in emerging markets

23 Jan

At a time when the West’s economy is being overtaken at every corner by the emerging economies of the world, it would seem sensible for British and Western companies to be tapping into the vast opportunities of Asia, Latin America and Africa. Political leaders seemingly agree with this sentiment, as the hefty flight schedules of David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama would attest.

Yet the vast majority of British – and indeed Western – investment still heads to Europe and North America. In 2010 these two continents accounted for half of global foreign direct investment (FDI), but the figures for Western investment in the other continents are well below this. This is despite academic evidence suggesting that emerging market returns are generally more predictable than developed market returns.

Why don’t companies invest abroad?

Many investors do not expand abroad at all, no matter whether the market is emerging or developed.  This ‘home bias’ in investment decisions is a well-known phenomenon, and its prevalence is perhaps exemplified by a 1997 report that revealed that U.S. corporations had roughly 90% of their investments in US companies.  Although globalization has lessened this figure, it is still the case that emerging markets are underweight in terms of investment – as the FDI numbers above prove.

No one knows for sure the reasons behind home bias. Casual evidence from British companies indicates that they find it difficult to invest in emerging market economies (EMEs) because their managers are often unsure of the risks. Even the Arabian Gulf Region, one of the most rewarding regions for British firms, with a large UK expatriate community and a long history of investment, suffers from the ‘fear of the unknown’.

These risks, which can be both economic and political, may be hard to quantify in EMEs. In most Western nations, a vast library of economic statistics and political analysis is publicly available for review. These countries tend to have well-developed and predictable economies and relatively stable governments. Developing countries offer less transparency and access to accurate economic or industry statistics may not exist at all.

This opacity can significantly increase financial risks of EME investment. One such example is being confident in local corporate governance. Emerging market firms are typically controlled by a large resident shareholder, normally the state or a family, who have power significantly in excess of their voting rights. Although this can be good for the company’s long-term interests, it can also cause economic issues. Some studies seem to suggest that the Asian crisis of 1997-99 was in part caused by poor governance: the close relationship between government, business and finance, typical in these economies, led to high debt-equity ratios in the corporate sector which made it more vulnerable to economic shocks.

Corporate governance aside, there are many other financial risks that act as barriers to emerging market investment. Poor credit ratings, high and variable inflation, and exchange rate controls are but three examples. Yet political risks can be just as important, and at the same time, just as hard to fathom – as Standard Chartered Bank found out in Nigeria when its entire operation there was confiscated by the Government.

Studies have shown that there are good reasons why political risk is worth considering when looking at where to invest. First, political freedom promotes private investment. Second, political instability has a negative effect on private investment. Third, policy uncertainty has a negative effect on investment decisions.

Examples of political risk affecting investment abound. One of the reasons that Zimbabwe suffers from poor FDI is that no one is quite sure about President Mugabe’s nationalisation agenda. Iraq and Afghanistan do not find it easy to attract investors because of the political instability there makes high levels of security necessary, which bumps up costs and significantly impacts on operations.

It is therefore quite easy to see why Western companies can be reticent to invest in emerging economies. Yet investment does sometimes happen. In these cases how do executives evaluate which market to enter?

Making the choice

As might be expected, the two main categories of investment risk that are generally considered are political and economic risk. They are unavoidable factors in international commerce due to the continued differences between the laws, customs and policies of foreign governments. As foreigners entering new markets, companies and individuals often lack the local market knowledge and culture to understand these differences and must depend on outside sources for information and forecasts.

Many companies start with the financial side, using indicators like market GDP, growth rates, and exchange rates. Some also use composite risk indices which look at differing aspects of political and economic risk, like the World Bank’s Country Policy and Institutional Assessment, despite evidence that seems to play down their usefulness.

Other companies will focus on specific issues that come more or less from the personal experience of the Board, perhaps where they have been let down before. Factors examined here will include the absence of contract-enforcing mechanisms and the ease of finding local agents.

There is though one more risk category that needs to be examined, and one that is often overlooked: social risk. This is where cultural factors have an impact on an investment, often at the operational level, which is not easy to spot through traditional financial due diligence.

For example, the joint venture between TNK and BP has been enormously profitable for BP, as the financial analysis predicted. But the relationship has been far from harmonious, and it may in the long-term be a strategic calamity for the British company if it prevents them taking advantage of other opportunities such as the recently blocked deal with Rosneft shows. At the heart of this has been the operational clash between the two companies. Russian managers have found it hard to work under the Western style of management, and in return British executives have not always been attuned to Russian sensibilities. The friction this has caused has exacerbated other issues like the clash on strategic direction that is the core source of disagreement today.

Risk and high return

One final problem for companies wanting to invest in EMEs is a psychological one. British and Western culture has become risk averse over the past decades, with every effort made to eliminate hazards from daily life. Many managers find it difficult to imagine investing outside of their comfort zones: for these, EME risk can never be outweighed by the increased returns expected.

This aversion does not apply to everyone, and with good reason. For emerging markets are the future, and indeed the present – African, South American and Asian GDP growth far outstrips that of the West. The fact that this is likely to be the case for years to come means that it would not be in the interests of shareholders to at least look at the possibility of investing in these emerging markets. True, they will have different risks to investing in the US or France. But the returns will be good if the companies prepare themselves properly. The West should no longer be the be all and end all for Western investment.

Burma’s thaw continues: Britain’s Hague makes a visit

5 Jan

British Foreign Secretary William Hague touched down in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw today to become the highest-ranking British politician to visit the country in more than half a century.

The Foreign Secretary has brought with him a pledge to boost aid to the beleaguered country in response to what Britain sees as political progress over the past year. Trade deals however are not thought to be on the agenda.

Mr Hague’s trip is the latest in a series of attempts to re-align Britain’s foreign policy towards more traditional allies and partners, many from within the Commonwealth or in Asia. High profile visits to China, India and Australia have boosted both trade and diplomatic ties.

British Foreign Secretary Hague holds talks with Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin in Naypyidaw (Reuters)

The visit by the Foreign Secretary follows closely behind that of Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, who travelled to Burma last month in an historic visit that signaled an unprecedented attempt by the Burmese Government to reach out to the West. For decades Burma has been one of China’s staunchest allies, but like several other South East Asian nations, it is attempting to diversify away from total reliance on Beijing for international support.

Analysts believe this move towards the West may be a reaction to increased belligerence by China. Recent months have seen Beijing increasingly assertive regarding its claim to the South China Sea and its resources, including rich fishing grounds and medium sized oil and gas deposits. Reports of Premier Hu Jintao ordering the Chinese Navy to prepare for warfare, and moves to protect China’s commercial interests in neighbouring countries with armed Chinese police, have both heightened regional fears about Beijing’s true intentions.

Though the two-day visit signals a shift in relations, Britain won’t promise any immediate change in European Union sanctions on arms sales, asset freezes and travel bans — or change a policy that discourages UK businesses from trade with Burma.  

Britain recently pledged £185 million (US $289 million) over three years to fund health and education projects — becoming Burma’s largest bilateral aid donor — but the UK channels funds only through non-governmental groups.

Mr Hague will lay out a series of demands for Burmese leadership to meet before it considers offering funds direct to the government, or before the EU can lift any sanctions.

“We hope to see the release of all remaining political prisoners, free and fair by-elections, humanitarian access to people in conflict areas and credible steps towards national reconciliation,” Hague said.

With Burma lying at a key crossroads between India and China, and South East Asia, the country is fertile ground for commercial opportunities. Assuming that the democratic process in the country continues as planned, the Foreign Secretary’s visit should only be good news for further British trade with Asia.

2011: the year Asia really took off

31 Dec

2011 has been a pivotal year in the history of the world. The Arab Spring – which has changed the Middle East completely – has used traditional and new social media channels to inspire revolution. The importance of social media extends to the other global movement of the past year, the Occupy protests North America and Europe. Indeed, Eric Hobsbawn, the marxist historian, has equated 2011 to 1848, or the year of revolutions that set Europe on fire.

Asia has perhaps been a bit quieter in comparison. But the changes here have been just as important – and probably more so. For this was the year that the continent, in particular Asia-Pacific, has started to really take off. The flow of power and wealth that has been flowing from West to East since the financial world collapsed 5 years ago is now being entrenched, aided by the EU’s woes, America’s political deadlock, and the continued economic development of the Asian nations.

It is certain that we are one or two years away – at most – from the tipping point, when the fulcrum of the world moves from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Pacific century is about to begin.

Here are some of the more important events from Asia this year:

China flexes its might

China’s relations with its South East Asian neighbours have slightly deteriorated this year. Despite new initiatives to bolster Beijing’s influence, such as the deployment of Chinese police to the Mekong river, the region’s governments are seeking to

The neighbours are worried

broaden their relations with other countries, especially the US. The visit to Burma by Hilary Clinton and Vietnam’s welcome of a US aircraft carrier are just two such initiatives.

Chinese sabre rattling – such as Hu Jintao telling his navy to prepare for warfare, and intransigence over China’s claim to the South China Sea – has been a main source of these new tensions, but there are others too. Huge numbers of Chinese immigrants to Laos have led to concerns there, and South Korea and Japan have had clashes with their giant neighbour thanks to wayward fishing vessels.

China’s ‘peaceful rise’ might still be the official mantra, but it is looking less and less convincing to her fellow Asians – let alone the US.

US nails its colours to the Pacific mast

Washington has taken advantage of this regional anxiety by seeking to restrict China’s room for strategic manoeuvre in Asia-Pacific. It has done this with a mixture of bilateral and regional deals.

President Obama: more at home in the Pacific

The US free trade agreement with Seoul and its sale of fighter aircraft to Tokyo are two examples of America bolstering its influence with specific nations.

Washington is also looking to cement its position as the regional leader by joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and using that as a vehicle for APAC domination. If the TPP – which China is excluded from because of the liberal economic rules that dictate who can and can’t be a member – becomes the main APAC trading block then the US will have succeeded in maintaining its hegemony in the Pacific region.

All of which is looked upon with alarm by China, as numerous articles in its official newspapers bear witness. The chances of Beijing accepting America’s dominance are close to zero, so 2011 is only going to be the beginning.

The march of the Yuan to world currency status

China’s recent currency deal with Japan is a small but important step to making the Yuan a global reserve currency alongside the US dollar, the Euro (for now), and the Yen and Sterling. The deal – which allows Chinese and Japanese trading companies switch between yuan and yen without converting to dollars first – is not though just about regional trade.  China seeks a bigger role for its currency in global markets, and wants power in international forums that is commensurate with its economic might. The sooner its currency is fully convertible and its economy is open to global investment, the sooner this will happen.

Japan’s disaster

March 11 saw a huge earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, leaving at least 16,000 dead and causing $235 billion of damage – the world’s most expensive natural disaster. This came on top of two decades of economic stagnation which has led to Japan being overtaken by China as the planet’s second largest economy.

Prime Minister Noda

The net effect of the tsunami has been to shake Japan into realising its precariousness. For too long the country has been mired in deflationary decay and with a highly unhealthy political system that has seen 7 prime ministers since 2006.

The incumbant leader, Prime Minister Noda, seems to have recognised this and is looking for solutions. Reaching out to the Trans-Pacific Partnership earlier this year was a watershed in Japanese relations with its neighbours, and she has been busy making bilateral currency deals with China and South Korea.

Given the short-term nature of his position, it is hopeful that Noda can continue his apparent mission to further integrate Japan with the world economy well into next year.

India paralysed ahead of its 2012 elections

The world’s largest democracy has some way to go to catch up with its Asian rival China, as can be seen here. But it is not helping itself by sacrificing its economic development on the altar of party politics ahead of next year’s elections.

Not to India's liking - until 2012 anyway

The ruling Congress Party has been attempting to reassert its leadership and kick-start investment in the deteriorating economy, but has been blocked in several initiatives by opposition from other parties keen to position themselves ahead of 2012. The Government’s decision to halt foreign investment in the country’s huge retail sector is the main victim of this politicking, and has damaged India’s reputation as a place to invest.

The rupee’s 13% slide in 2011 – Asia’s worst performing currency – is a reflection on a lack of investment confidence.

If India is to start competing seriously with China then it needs to get its politics inline with what is best for its economy.

North Korea’s succession plans

The death of Kim Jong-il has been a major source of world anxiety. There has been widespread alarm at the youth of the apparent successor, Kim Jong-un, and the instability that his inexperience could bring.

Given the strong messages coming from Pyongyang over the last few weeks it seems likely that the young pretender is increasing his grip on the country. The worry therefore is less about a power vacuum, but perhaps too much power and with a need to use it.

As with all these events, time will tell. 2012 is going to be an interesting year indeed.

China (unofficially) calls time on the Euro as we know it

20 Dec

The China Daily’s opinion piece this morning is of great note, and proposes that the Euro in its current form – as a European wide currency – will soon cease to exist.

The Eurozone is beyond saving; the euro will survive, but the zone will shrink. The only question is the scale, timing, and manner of its breakup. Greece, and probably other Mediterranean countries, will default and regain the freedom to print money and devalue their exchange rates.

 This will send shock waves throughout the world. But sometimes shock waves are needed to break the ice and start the water flowing again.

Bye bye (picture credit The Daily Telegraph)

The fact that this has appeared in the CD – as with all their opinion pieces – reveals what Beijing is thinking:

  1. It is now very unlikely that China will come to the aid of the Eurozone as it stands. There have been plenty of debates across the country as to whether China should help Europe – the EU is after all their biggest trading partner – but this appears to settle it. The Eurozone as it stands has just had one of its last hopes for salvation pulled away.
  2. China is pushing Europe to adopt Keynesian economics and to start investing. This fits nicely with China’s stated goal of investing in European assets, as posted here. With a divided Eurozone this may make deal-making with individual European countries easier.

 Meanwhile, it should be noted that the author is Lord Skidelsky, the Chinese-born arch Keynesian and enemy of austerity measures. Given the massive stimuli that China has given itself over the last few years it is no surprise that his piece was used.

Although he is highly critical of European measures to clear their deficits, it will be interesting to see his view if countries that followed his investment views – such as China – fail to come out of this economic gloom as well as he might have thought.

Lies and democracy

20 Dec

The China Daily today published an American writer’s list of the ‘US’ twelve biggest lies of 2012′. “I live in Washington where lying is an art form,” David J. Rothkopf wrote for Foreign Policy.

(Readers of the CD should reflect on the fact that, unlike their hawkish cousin Global Times, they very rarely criticise the US directly, but instead report critical assertions about America written by their own people. A subtle difference.)

Newt: Cold War hero

Some of the political lies of recent times are completely ludicrous, like Newt Gingrich ending the Cold War.

These ‘mis-speaking’ statements, as Hilary Clinton may have put it, are part and parcel of running a Government. Agendas need to have supporting struts, and when no actual ones are found then politicians the world over are happy to do a little invention. This applies to democracies and authoritarians alike.

Yet when American, British and European leaders don’t tell the truth they undermine a fundamental pillar of democracy: namely that our political masters should be upstanding members of the community in whom we can place our trust. If truth becomes expendable then they defile their office, and scorn the voters that put them there. There are of course times when leaders need to be careful what they say for reasons of national security – which we all understand – but when a policy has to be continually defended by mendacity then surely it is time to revisit whether the policy is the right one in the first place?

Despite the Arab Spring, democracy is not in a good place at the moment. Two democratically elected  European leaders have been usurped in favour of technocrats, and the US political system is paralysed by more bitterness and in-fighting than at any time since the Civil War.

With China and other countries showing off the economic advantages of authoritarian rule, it is time for Western democracy to stand up and be counted. A long list of lies is not going to help matters.

Here are the twelve, with CD commentary:

1. “The war in Iraq is finally over after nine years.” Rothkopf notes the US has been militarily engaged in Iraq since the early 1990 and this will likely be just the end of another installment in the long running series of US warmongering policies in the region.

2. “America’s mission in Iraq was a success.” He expresses astonishment at such a claim while Iraq is divided, undemocratic, corrupt, and the US invasion has cost USD1 trillion, thousands of US lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and its national reputation. US war in Iraq bears greater semblance to a full-scale “fiasco”, he says.

3. “We are winning in Afghanistan.” Rothkopf describes this one as a hot from the oven “howler” by the US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Washington has strengthened the region’s extremists and the threat of instability in nuclear Pakistan is now actually higher than it was when US went in, he says.

4. Tie: “Pakistan is America’s ally” and “Afghanistan is America’s partner.” Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can by any “credible definition” be called a US ally. This is attested to by the animosity of Islamabad towards Washington and Kabul’s belittling of the US on the world stage, Rothkopf says.

5. “America is unthreatened by China’s growth.” A “prayer” by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rothkopf says. “It should be true. But it’s not,” he adds.

6. Tie: “Republicans are the problem” and “Democrats are the problem.” Rothkopf dubs this one as “the great lie of American politics.” He says the problem with US politics is not the parties, but the money. “The system is so resolutely corrupt that recent scandals have only resulted in more money flowing into the system and past reforms being undone,” he notes.

7. “Cutting the taxes of millionaires helps create US jobs.” There is not even one single solitary shred of evidence to support this “idiotic” suggestion, Rothkopf notes. [Personally I am not sure about this - there does seem to be some argument that lower taxes increases investment which creates jobs, but it is all a question of degrees I suppose.]

8. “This next summit of European leaders will be decisive …” Rothkopf says despite the fact that this claim has been made every few weeks for the past months, the “supposedly sophisticated financial markets” of the United States continue to fall for it.

9. “The Obama administration is committed to serious financial services reform.” The US financial system is still plagued by all the threats that instigated the 2008 recession. “Not an inch of progress,” Rothkopf says.

10. “Only nine percent of Americans approve of Congress.” “This can’t possibly be true. There can’t possibly be that many,” Rothkopf says in a stinging sarcastic tone.

11. “The operation in Libya will be over in a matter of days or weeks.” Rothkopf says the operation was wrong to begin with, “and then wrong and then wrong again for months.”

12. “I love Israel.”  Even though everyone in US politics makes such an assertion, nobody really means it, Rothkopf notes. What the politicians really mean, however, is that “I want American Jews to think I love Israel enough to vote for me and give me money,” he says

 

Postscript.

For those of you that looked at the source material, you will notice that there are actually 14 lies that Rothkopf lists. So the question is, did the CD alter the story – so in effect lie – or did they just make a mistake?

Out of interest, the lies that the CD missed were:

  1. “The US might default on its debt”. This would obviously have a huge impact on China, which is the biggest single holder of US debt.
  2. “We believe diplomatic pressure may stop Iran’s nuclear program”. Again, a touchy subject for China given its support for Tehran.

It seems we can never be sure of the truth.

China tells Europe to get its act together – again

18 Dec

One of the advantages in China having a state-controlled press is that it makes it easier for the observer to understand what Beijing is thinking. When the China Daily prints an editorial highly critical of the EU and its attempts to get control of its rapidly worsening economic situation, it is highly probably that this is a direct message from the Chinese Government.

The article – actually written by an economic advisor to the EU – has a strong message for Europe, and in particular the ECB (European Central Bank) to act now. The proposal is for eurobonds to be created in an orderly fashion in order to shore up the national economies.

Eurozone leaders could also set out a road map toward eurobonds, subject to strict conditionality, and tied to a credible mechanism for ensuring fiscal prudence. This would provide an additional incentive for governments that wish to qualify to introduce the necessary reforms, while reassuring the ECB and markets that governments remain committed to making the euro work.

It is also interesting that the CD currently has a debate on its pages discussing the future of the EU – and the answer of both contributors is pretty negative. So whilst China wants the EU to get its act together, it seems also to be writing off the Euro project as feasible.

What though would be the advantage to China of an EU break-up? On the face of it, nothing, given that the EU is the country’s biggest trading partner. But a weakened EU would remove a strategic block from the international scene, and perhaps Beijing thinks it easier to get its way in the world dealing with smaller nation states than a continental monolith. It is hard to say.

The only thing certain is that, whatever the political outcome, given the importance to China of the EU economies we can expect more rattling in the media until the EU is back on the straight and narrow. This could take some time.

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