Summer's nearly here, so it must be time for the Brits to talk about Europe again. This time last year the UK government was announcing that it wouldn't be adopting the euro--at least not yet. Twelve months on, the EU is absorbing another 10 states to become the world's largest internal market and the UK government has promised a referendum on the European constitution. In between, it has sometimes seemed that the UK remembers Europe only for the occasional football match and ongoing debates about the Beekhams' living arrangements.
Despite this apparent endemic indifference, UK companies are now part of an economic union that includes 450 million consumers (page 18), and it's up to them to ensure that the advantages outweigh the problems that this could create. The eastern outposts of the continent may be populous, but western firms need these populations to become customers who are able and willing to pay for their products rather than for cheaper imitations. For what, after all, shall it profit a company if it shall gain the whole of Europe and lose its own reputation?
And we're not only talking about the reputation of a single company. Countries may be legally subsumed into one union, but national stereotypes remain. The west will have to amend its popular view of eastern Europeans as a rampaging horde of asylum-seekers and start seeing them as potential customers and suppliers. Many, of course, have been doing this for years, but old habits die hard. Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the divisions and negative images that continue between the economically more homogenous first-wave states.
At the same time, it's our differences--in ideas, image and...