The EU: a road to nowhere

EU bureacrats have invented a Europe-wide road network that doesn’t exist outside their own imaginations. It's a fitting metaphor for the eurozone as a whole, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

Did you know that there was a single road stretching from the west coat of Ireland to St Petersburg? I'm guessing you didn't. And that, of course, is because while this road has a name the E20 it doesn't exist outside the imagination of a group of European bureaucrats. In their minds it is part of an "international E-roads network" covering 2,000 miles of eurozone soil. In reality it is an administrative construct plonked on top of a network of national roads. And some sea: at three points a sea crossing is required and at one of those points (from Kingston upon Hull to Esbjerg) there are no vehicle-carrying vessels available.

When the route crosses land, it is rarely called the E20. Instead it is Ireland's M7 and N7; England's A5080, and A63; and Russia's M11, among others. The same goes for most other E roads. There is the E32, which is actually Britain's A120, the E30, which runs from Cork to Omsk, but is a mismatch of everything from Ireland's N25, our A40 and A14, Poland's A2 and Russia's M51; and many more. If you have a spare hour you might amuse yourself by looking them up and mulling over the madness of the people who mapped them.

The whole thing is nicely summed up by Wikipedia's references to E-Roads. Britain "fully co-operates" with the scheme. However, the "E-roads are not signposted at all". Even more galling for officials must be the fact that they have laid down all sorts of rules about what their imaginary E-roads must be like. Gradients must not exceed 8%, for example. Unfortunately, not only do most of the roads that form part of their fantasy network not meet these standards, but when countries have added on to their M7s and M51s, "these requirements have not been followed stringently". The fact is that, in real life, there is no such thing as a European road network. There are just lots of national road networks (and a few ferries).

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It is a metaphor for the eurozone as a whole: you can call it one place if you like, but it is still lots of different places that don't really work very well together. Europe's leaders seem to think that, if they make up enough rules, and issue enough guidelines, things can be forced to work themselves out. Take last week's palaver with the ratings agencies. Moody's downgrade of Portuguese debt to junk was hardly unwarranted. The official reaction a threat of taking regulatory action against the agency was.

Regulating the ratings agencies will no more make Portugal solvent than publishing maps of the E20 will build a bridge between Kingston upon Hull and Esbjerg. If the eurozone wants to hang on to the E-road-style fantasy that is the euro for a bit longer, it has to admit that what it has here is a genuine solvency crisis and then get on with solving it be that by properly printing money, by introducing some single eurozone bonds to finance its more bankrupt members, or by simply letting the euro go.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.