Howard Davies: Can Star Trek help stop Brexit?

MT DIARY: Why the Starship Enterprise could save the EU, Frankfurt's quiet nightlife and Dublin's growing economy.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2016

For a few months this spring, as our referendum date with destiny approaches, our 'Euroamis' are genuinely interested in what is going on in London. Will we, won't we, will we, won't we, will we leave the dance?

There is not much interest in the contents of the Settlement, as we must now call it, except among banking supervisors, oddly, for whom the consequences could be serious.

At a seminar on the future of European banking in the Goethe University, to fend off further questions on the detail I suggested that the audience might have a look at the British Government's paper The Best of Both Worlds, which sets out the prime minister's negotiating achievements in persuasive purple prose.

A student subsequently told me that if you Google that title you get a slew of references to two iconic Star Trek episodes of that name. Numbers 74 and 75, since you ask. So in an idle moment on the train, I decided to remind myself of the plot, which had unaccountably slipped my mind.

I was thrilled I did, because there is a sharp political message lurking. It is evident that there was a Trekkie on the PM's negotiating team. The storyline centres around a determined attempt by The Borg (geddit?) to conquer the Federation by occupying the mind of Captain Picard and learning all the starship's secrets from him. For a time, it seems The Borg must win. It captures Picard, seriously damages the Enterprise, destroys a defensive fleet and hurtles towards Downing Street (well, Earth) with the aim of taking full control of the Galaxy.

But clever tactics with a deflector shield by the remaining crew turn the tables and The Borg is comprehensively routed. I imagine they watch it every Saturday night in Number 10. If I were Boris, I would keep a weather eye out for starships in the next couple of months.

The Goethe University is in Frankfurt, about which I wrote 400 words last month. I was pretty proud to manage 400, and I am afraid there is nothing more to say, except that I arrived by train from Paris at 11pm on a clear if cold night and decided to walk to my hotel about a mile and a half away. (I am a slave to my Fitbit these days.) In 40 minutes dragging my roller bag, I passed just three people after leaving the station, two of them Brits being ushered out of the Fox and Hounds, which was closing for the night. If it is really true that after Brexit, the US investment banks will up sticks and move to the banks of the Main, those guys in red braces with a serious table-dancing habit to support are going to have a bit of a culture shock. I even worried that I might get arrested for disturbing the piece with my rattling Tumi.

It's the first time in my life I have found Brussels to be a thrilling change. It took a while to get there, as the fancy new Inter City Express in Deutsche Bundesbahn livery came down with a nasty technical fault in Cologne. I blame those feckless Greeks who take all the money the Germans could otherwise spend on even faster trains. But eventually I made it to Brussels Midi for an enjoyable dinner discussing the Juncker plan (who knew?) and an exciting morning in a lively debate on the projected new rules for simplified, transparent, synthetic securitisations.

We bankers love the idea. Sadly, I expect the European Parliament to be more influenced by Michael Lewis. They plan to take evidence from him and to take time out to watch The Big Short. It is hard to deny them an evening of fun. If you spend your life poring over financial market directives in 12 languages, the occasional racy film must come as a welcome relief.

Brussels is unlikely to be the transfer location of choice for City firms post-Brexit, tempting though it is to be close to the corridors of puissance. Dublin is a more likely option, especially for fund managers, so I popped over to wish a few tops of the morning and see how things are now shaping up, Liffey-side.

Not too badly at all, at all, was my impression. The economy is the fastest growing in the Eurozone - not perhaps a tough trophy to win, more Capital One Cup than Champions League. But a clip of over 7% a year is impressive, even if they are coming off a relatively low base, and Dublin property is looking expensive again. There are some more than decent restaurants, and you can even see people on the street after dark. I don't think they have had a Frankfurt-style curfew since 1921. So a modest punt on downtown Dublin office space might be a handy Brexit hedge.

Belfast was not quite as buoyant, and a few factories are closing down or cutting back their workforces, so unemployment is well above the national average. But Ryanair is putting some new routes in and George Best City Airport was buzzing. As a Man City man, I don't warm to the name, but even the most one-eyed Blue must recognise that the boy could play, unlike most of the current lot. I wonder if one day there will be a Marouane Fellaini International Airport in his home town of Brussels, or a Memphis Depay regional hub in his native Moordrecht. No, I don't think so, either.

Howard Davies is chairman of RBS. Follow him on Twitter: @howardjdavies

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