The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published last week some figures which show how a successful monetary union works in practice.
It is not obvious at first sight, from the dry heading: “regional public sector finances”.
The ONS collects information on the amounts of public spending and money raised in taxes across the regions of the UK. The difference is the so-called fiscal balance of the region.
Only three regions generate a surplus. In London, the South East and the East of England, total tax receipts exceed public spending. The capital has a healthy positive balance of £3,070 per head, followed by the South East at £1,667 per head.
Essentially, these two regions subsidise the rest of the UK. Public spending in the North East, for example, is £3,827 per person above the level of taxes raised in that region. In Wales, it is even higher at £4,545. No wonder that one of the first things Carwyn Jones, leader of the Welsh Assembly, said after the Brexit vote was: “Wales must not lose a penny of subsidy”.
The region which benefits most is Northern Ireland, which gets £5,437 per head more than it generates in tax. Scotland, to complete the picture, receives around half of that, at £2,824 per person.
There is a lot of debate around Brexit and the border between the North and the Republic of Ireland. There is even talk of reunification, but on these numbers the Republic would be mad to want it.
Essentially, the regions receive these subsidies because they are running deficits on their trade balance of payments. The exports of goods and services from the North East, for example, to the rest of the UK are much less than it imports. In balance of payments jargon, the subsidy it receives is a monetary transfer from the rest of the country, principally from London and the South East.
The ONS does not actually produce regional balance of payments statistics. But the fact that most regions receive these large transfers implies that they are just not productive enough to sustain their living standards by their own efforts.
All the regions are in the sterling monetary union. Those running trade deficits cannot devalue to try to improve their position. They must instead rely on subsidy.
Exactly the same principles apply in the Eurozone. The massive difference of course is that there is no central Eurozone government to make sure the weaker performing regions receive the necessary funding.
This is why President Macron and Chancellor Merkel announced they will examine changes to treaties to allow for further Eurozone integration. Even the hardline German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, said: “a community cannot exist without the strong vouching for the weaker ones”.
To be sustainable, a monetary union needs large transfers between its regions. London and the South East already put their hands deep into their pockets for the rest of the UK. Gordon Brown did get one thing spectacularly right. He kept us out of the Euro.